Barbuda: The island where 19th century land ownership is at risk


Gemma Handy (BBC) writes about the current controversy in Barbuda; the government plans to overturn a centuries-old system of communal land ownership, which, islanders fear, will “destroy their unique way of life and erase their cultural identity.”

Around the dominoes table, spirits appear high but faces are weary. It is not long before the light-hearted banter is replaced by the topic currently dominating every conversation in Barbuda.

Islanders say that government plans to overturn a centuries-old system of communal land ownership will destroy their unique way of life and erase their cultural identity. The controversial bill introducing the freehold sale of land would revoke this 19th Century practice, which was enshrined into law in 2007. It is now gathering pace after being passed by both chambers of Antigua and Barbuda’s parliament.

Communal ownership

Here, in this makeshift bar amid the ruins of Barbuda’s once charming capital, people are still reeling from the wrath of devastating Hurricane Irma. Almost five months after the monster storm ripped the tiny Caribbean island apart, destroying homes and vital infrastructure, depression is setting in. Electricity and running water have yet to be restored, schools remain closed and less than 400 of Barbuda’s 1,800-strong population have returned home following September’s mandatory evacuation to the sister isle of Antigua.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne says allowing parcels of land to be sold will raise the revenue Barbuda needs to rebuild. Under the existing system, Barbudans govern all land communally with no private ownership. Residents can identify parcels for residential, commercial or agricultural use, which are then approved by the Barbuda Council and can be passed on to their heirs. Many fear the changes will open the floodgates to wealthy foreign investors and transform the quaint, pristine isle into a tourism hotspot.

‘No consent without consultation’

Earlier this month, an application for an injunction to put the brakes on the process was refused by the High Court. The lawyer representing those behind the application, British QC Leslie Thomas, argues that the government has contravened laws which state that communal ownership can be repealed only with the consent of the majority of the Barbudan people.

[. . .] “As soon as the land is sold, it is lost to us,” says secondary school principal John Mussington. “Our traditional lifestyles of farming and hunting, which require large amounts of land and have been our economy for hundreds of years, will be completely disenfranchised. Our resources will be removed with one stroke of a pen.”

Mr Mussington says that even if every Barbudan bought the 10,000 sq ft allotted to each resident, which would only amount to less than one square mile in total out of the island’s 62-square-mile territory.

He fears what the government will do with the remaining 61 square miles of land, which, under the new law it will be free to dispose of as it sees fit. [. . .]

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