Barbuda Seeking to Define “Normal” after Devastating Hurricane


Debbie Ransome (Caribbean Intelligence) reports on Barbuda’s efforts to bounce back from the ravages caused by Hurricane Irma:

It was a simple press release. More than 100 Barbudans had indicated readiness to buy lands in Barbuda under the new Barbuda Land Amendment Act (2017), it said. But behind that news lies a complicated tale of “building back better”, building back quickly, ancient land rights and even a Hollywood film star.

The facts: the Barbuda Land Amendment Act (2017) was passed in Antigua & Barbuda’s lower and upper houses of parliament during December 2017 and January 2018. By February, it was ready to be gazetted, that is, passed into law with the signature of the Governor General.

The bill had been introduced to parliament following the devastation caused by September 2017’s Hurricane Irma, which damaged an estimated 90% of structures in Barbuda. The legislation repeals and replaces the common lands format of the 1904 Barbuda Act in order to, as it states, “provide for Barbudans to have equal rights to purchase the freehold interest in land situate in the island of Barbuda, the right to own a leasehold interest in such land, to provide for the management, administration and development control of land in the island of Barbuda, to provide for the confirmation or otherwise of certain leases of land in Barbuda and for incidental and connected purposes”.

What this legalese basically means is that anyone with a lease under the new system, rather than understood common ownership, can now seek loans and insurance with the confirmation that banks and other businesses require. [. . .]

Antigua & Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, described the bill after its passage as a chance to “unlock the economic potential of the land that had laid fallow for centuries and will provide the citizens of Barbuda with significant economic opportunities, which hitherto, they were denied”. However, some members of the opposition, international land rights groups and local Barbuda rights activists lodged an unsuccessful legal appeal to stop the bill’s passage through parliament, alongside a high profile legal and media campaign, branding the legislation “disaster capitalism” and a “land grab”. And when the campaigners dropped the name of two-time Oscar-winner Robert De Niro, a campaign over land rights in tiny Barbuda suddenly made the global headlines. [. . .]

De Niro and James Packer, the son of the late Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, had bought over the lease of the defunct once-exclusive K Club Resort, some 200 acres of land in Barbuda, which had provided a holiday hideout for the world’s best-known faces, including Princess Diana. However, the new lease holders, who had been negotiating for a long term lease to turn the K Club into a new resort, rebranded as Paradise Found, found their timetable swept away with the 2017 hurricane.

This led to De Niro fronting calls for help for Barbuda at the UN following the hurricane devastation and turning more than local attention to his ongoing K Club negotiations. The global media love a hurricane picture and a high-profile celeb fronting the calls for aid. But they love even more a tale of rich celebs riding roughshod over the rights of locals.

De Niro and the Paradise Found plans had been in the eye of a local storm well before the 2017 hurricane season, but the proposed changes in the post-hurricane land bill became part of the global media storm as the bill was readied for parliament.

“Barbuda fears land rights loss in bid to spread tourism from Antigua”, said a headline in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. [. . .]

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