A land rights storm brewing in Barbuda?


Here are excerpts of an article by Liz Alden Wily (Independent Land Tenure Specialist); see original, full article at landportal.info for references and external links:

Millions have learned of the existence of the small island of Barbuda (161 sq. km), through the havoc that Hurricane Irma wreaked on the island, destroying most buildings, roads, water, and power installations. Barbuda is the smaller island of the modern state of Antigua and Barbuda, 63 km apart. What they may not know is that the less than 2,000 Barbudans collectively own their island. This was entrenched by the Barbuda Land Act, 2007.


This ownership is under threat, which has been heightened by Hurricane Irma. Following the island’s mass evacuation, the Antiguan-dominated government announced its intention to repeal the Barbuda Land Act in favour of individualized freehold tenure. The Prime Minister argues that Barbudans need individual freehold title to secure bank loans to rebuild their houses. History suggests the stronger motive is to free up the island for purchase by international and Antiguan interests to establish private resorts. Investors typically perceive collective ownership as an impediment. Yet Barbudans have proven willing to consider such applications, but on their terms and without losing ultimate title to their island.

What the Law Says

The storm of the debate is around whether the Barbuda Land Act should be repealed or not. Relevant features of the law include:

Whether they reside in Barbuda or not, those born Barbudan share common title to the land (section 2). Rights of occupation and use descend from this common title, much as is the way in other community-based ownership systems around the world today. Specifically, each Barbudan has a right to a plot for a house, a plot to farm, and a plot for commercial enterprise. Many Barbudans work outside the island out of necessity. The loss of these land rights could, in effect, jeopardize their return. Barbudans may also convert their right of occupancy into renewable leaseholds, which are more attractive to lessors. In addition, as co-owners, Barbudans have the right to graze animals and to use other resources of the island in ways the community approves. [. . .]

Barbuda’s modern occupation began in 1632 with the settlement of an English slave trader and plantation developer, Christopher Codrington. He was granted a lease by the British Crown in 1685. When it came to organizing their survival, while serving the slave-owner or later overseers until the 20th century, practical norms of issuing rights for living and farming evolved. Porter (forthcoming) cites literature showing that livestock grazing and shifting cultivation, as well as fishing were critical livelihood activities through the 17th to 20th centuries. While agriculture plays a limited role in livelihoods today, Barbudans consider this irrelevant to their land ownership. Claims vary as to how much Barbudans resisted orders in the slave and post-slave forced labour system, which was followed by direct British rule and semi-autonomy in the 20th century. A history of proud possession of the island is undisputed. Although not made the case for Antigua, the 1904 Barbuda Ordinance vested Barbuda in the British Crown (s. 10-11) and to enable local occupancy and use rights to be retained.


The Government in Antigua has not hidden its wish to repeal the Barbuda Land Act. Hurricane Irma in September 2017 brought a new angle for politicians to promote the repeal of the Barbuda Land Act.

One Barbudan writes:

“This right to use the land and to self-determination for Barbudans has been established since the end of slavery when the Barbudan slaves refused to be moved off Barbuda to Antigua, and more recently in 1981 this unique history was central to the establishment of a separate and independent Barbuda Council at the Antigua and Barbuda Independence talks in the UK.”


[. . .] At two percent of the population of the State of Antigua and Barbuda, and with only one guaranteed seat in Parliament, Barbudans have little say. Local internet sites such as cited above mention numerous cases of attempts to “mislead or bribe people to give their land away,” and in partnership with foreign investors, target compliant Councillors on the island.


[. . .] Nevertheless, Hurricane Irma in September 2017 brought a new angle for politicians to promote the repeal of the Barbuda Land Act. Prime Minister Gaston Browne announced that with the repeal of the law, Barbudans would get freehold titles for their house plots. “When you give a Barbudan a freehold, they can go to into the bank, they can borrow monies, they can get a mortgage, they can build. They can get a loan for student purposes, to do businesses, it’s a form of empowerment,” said Browne. Moreover, this would only cost them a dollar each. “We are trying to build an ownership class in Barbuda,” he added. As the Washington Post reported on 30 September 2017, some Barbudans smelt a rat: a land grab that could lead to large-scale development. [. . .]


For full article, see https://landportal.info/blog-post/2017/10/land-rights-storm-brewing-barbuda

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