Barbuda: ‘Why I don’t want to own the land my business is built on’


[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] In “Why I don’t want to own the land my business is built on,” Linda Pressly (BBC News) reports on the complex story of privatization of land on Barbuda after the ravages of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Hurricane Irma smashed its way across Barbuda in September 2017. It left a catastrophic trail of destruction. And when, in the aftermath, the island’s government resolved to introduce a system of private property, this kick-started old tensions.

Asha Frank hosts intrepid tourists in a wooden cabana built on the east of Barbuda. This is wilderness living – there is a well for fresh water, but no flushing toilet. The only sounds are from myriad birds that swoop and dive overhead and the crash of the Atlantic Ocean from beyond the sand dunes close by. You need a sturdy vehicle to get here because there is no paved road – just a roughly marked track on the stony terrain. “Our visitors like to comb the beach. We have camp fires and grill nights. And a lot of the pictures on our website are of guests who catch fish, and then scale, cook and eat it on the spot.”

Fifty years ago, you could find many pristine spots in the Caribbean like this one. That was before tourism became the primary engine powering the economies of this region, making real estate highly desirable – and the foundation of many lucrative businesses. Compared to its neighbours and especially its sister island of Antigua, Barbuda – just 23km long and 12km wide – has remained undeveloped. And that is largely because in modern times, private property has never existed here. Since the island’s slave population was emancipated in the 19th Century, land has been held in common. Barbudans do not own, but lease it to build their homes, to farm and for economic activity.

“Land is part of our culture – this is about 300 years of history,” says Frank. Because she didn’t have to buy her land, she was able to establish her eco-tourism business without investing thousands of dollars.

But moves to dismantle Barbuda’s system of tenure began just after Irma. Some 95% of Barbuda’s infrastructure was affected by the storm – much of it was completely obliterated. There are shiny new roofs in the village of Codrington, where the majority of Barbudans live. But there is also still plenty of evidence of the destructive powers of the hurricane – piles of broken masonry, tarpaulins tightly fastened over gaping holes, and palm trees ripped from their roots.

Less than a week after the storm Gaston Browne, prime minister of the government of the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda, declared his intention to privatise land on Barbuda – to enable islanders to borrow against their properties and help rebuild, he said. One of his suggestions was that all Barbudans be given deeds to the land they occupy for a nominal Eastern Caribbean $1.

Many were outraged. There is a history of antipathy between the larger, more developed island of Antigua and the people of Barbuda. Ahead of independence in 1981, and partly to protect their land rights, Barbudans lobbied the British for autonomy. Their efforts failed, and the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda was born.

After the horror of Irma, the government ordered the evacuation of the Barbudan population – around 1,800 – to Antigua, because another hurricane was barrelling down. Hurricane Jose passed the island by. But the government still did not enable people to return to Barbuda immediately. People complain of much greater losses because their belongings rotted for days in the open air – very few had insurance.

John Mussington, the principal of Barbuda’s secondary school, came back home as soon as he could in October, 2017. But something puzzled him in those early days. “At night Barbuda was black, because there was no electricity. But in this one concentrated area, the skies were lit up. And from where I live miles away I could hear the sound of heavy-duty equipment and bulldozer blades grating against stones… I said, ‘What’s going on here?'” [. . .]

Last year, the Antigua and Barbuda government took a major step in its efforts to introduce private property when it repealed the Barbuda Land Act of 2007 that guaranteed communal land ownership rights on the island. “They want to surround the whole island along the coast with hotels, and big houses and stuff, so we’ll be enclosed in the village,” Desouza says. “And I have a problem with people from Antigua, telling me where I should and shouldn’t live. That’s not how we’re accustomed to living here.” [. . .]

So far, the privatisation of land on Barbuda hasn’t taken effect. A legal challenge, on the grounds that the government’s actions are unconstitutional, means it is being held up in the courts.

“No property of any description should be expropriated by any person. We’re saying it’s an expropriation by the government to repeal the 2007 Barbuda Land Act,” says Justin Simon QC. “What this government wants to do is to develop Barbuda with foreign investment. But not every one of the Caribbean’s islands can be a development Mecca.”

The government of Antigua and Barbuda has always denied accusations it is engaged in some kind of “land grab”. “Who’s grabbing the land?” asks Dean Jonas, the minister for agriculture, fisheries and Barbuda affairs.

“The land is being sold to Barbudans. The government is in the process right now of setting up a land registry for Barbuda. We have a land registry in Antigua, so now we have to set one up to survey all the lands in Barbuda, and get them registered properly in the court. So the process has started. All the land in Barbuda belongs to the government – it’s important you understand that.” [. . .]

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