Communal Land as Survival: Barbuda’s Decolonial World View

[Many thanks to David Auerbach and Maritza Stanchich for bringing this item to our attention.] In their article “Communal Land as Survival: Barbuda’s Decolonial World View,” Line Algoed (PhD researcher at Cosmopolis, the Center for Urban Research, at the Geography Department of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in Belgium) and Antonio Carmona Báez (professor of political science and president of the University of St. Martin in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten). Read this exceptional article (with additional notes and links) at The Avery Review.

The Caribbean is at once the Earth’s most geographic and ungeographic region. It is “the starting place,” as Martinican scholar Malcom Ferdinand has said, “from which you conceptualize the Earth, the world, the people, the human, and non-human.”1 And yet it is still largely imagined as if it were not a real place. Globalization started here with the colonization of the Americas and the transatlantic “trade” in enslaved Africans. The region, as Jamaican scholar Jean Besson puts it, “has long been seen as a series of landscapes to be mined for their wealth or enjoyed for their beauty by outsiders.”2 Its global imaginary has been claimed by outsiders who have flocked to the region: the colonizers, the settlers, the real estate investors, the tourists, the shell companies, the remote workers. This imaginary belongs to everyone except its people.

The Caribbean is the region from where to consider the longevity of colonial notions of land use—which hinge on the supposed necessity of private property. Here we see the contemporary materializations of neocolonialism, the coloniality of power, and the decolonial resistance of its inhabitants. These three forces are particularly pronounced on the island of Barbuda, the smallest island of the independent Caribbean Commonwealth State of Antigua and Barbuda, located in the eastern part of the Leeward Islands. Although it is estimated that 65 percent of the earth’s surface is communally held,3 Barbuda is the only island in the world where all land is entirely held in common by Barbudans. The land is not property of the state, nor is there any private property; land cannot be sold. Communal land ownership has allowed Barbudans to keep the island out of the global land market, to limit the built environment, and to protect the delicate ecosystem of its coastal areas and lagoons. However, the island’s centuries-old communal land is now threatened by the twin state’s Central Government and its economic allies, who have used the devastating hurricanes of 2017 to capitalize on the island’s unspoiled condition through land grabs, policy changes, and the advancement of luxury real estate projects—most notably Robert De Niro’s “Paradise Found” and the Barbuda Ocean Club by John Paul DeJoria’s “Peace, Love and Happiness” partnership. We see Barbuda’s story of resistance against private property and these types of development as a fight for survival, not only of its people and environment, but also of the maintenance of its own sense of geography—of knowledge-practices that refuse to separate humans from nature.

Barbuda has a powerful history of resistance against Western forms of property and subjugation. When the Kalinago inhabited the island, they called it Wa’Omoni, Island of Herons. They fought to defend their land from European settlers.4 In 1628, the island became the personal property of King Charles II, who in 1685 leased it for almost two centuries to the Codrington family for just “yearly one fat sheep if demanded.”5 A limestone island, Barbuda was too dry for large-scale sugarcane production, so the British enslavers used it to house their managers and overseers. A few hundred enslaved Africans worked under force to supply livestock and food staples to the Cordington’s Antigua estates.6 When Britain banned slavery in 1834, Barbudans were omitted from the Slavery Emancipation Act and had to fight to free themselves. The Codrington family left in 1870, and the Barbudans, who had lived and endured two hundred years of brutal enslavement on the island, refused to pay rent to the British Crown. The Crown eventually granted Barbudans legal status as its lawful tenants in communal possession in a 1904 colonial enactment.7 This communal possession was maintained throughout the twentieth century and was refined and ratified in the Barbuda Land Act of 2007. The Act, which states that the island is owned in common by the people of Barbuda, entitles each Barbudan to three plots of land: one for housing, another for agriculture, and a third for business.8

While the Crown remains the symbolic owner of the land, the Barbuda Council, composed of nine directly elected and two ex officio members serving four-year terms, is the legal land administrator. The Council has the power to allocate and lease plots of land. [. . .]

This enduring legacy differentiates Barbuda from other Caribbean islands, including Antigua. In fact, Barbudans resisted independence from Britain in 1981 to avoid being forced to adapt their land system to Antigua’s freehold system and its commitment to large-scale, coastal tourism. Unlike Antigua, Barbuda’s coastline is preserved. Food is grown in small agroecological provision grounds or backyards, and people hunt and fish, selling food to the community. There are no fences. A typical plot for a private house is no larger than 0.5 acres. The built environment is limited to the roughly 600 homes in the island’s only town, Codrington, and a few small-scale tourist resorts.

And yet, it is the island’s immaculateness that has also attracted the rich and powerful to it. Princess Diana vacationed at (and made famous) the K-Club, which had a lease on the southern beach, Coco Point. In 2015, the American actor Robert De Niro announced his plans to redevelop the then abandoned resort into a 391-acre luxury, “Nobu-branded” residential community, which he and his billionaire partner James Packer have called “Paradise Found.” The resort is anticipated to include a Nobu Hotel of fifty separate villas with private pools and Nobu residences for sale. The annual lease for the land is $62,000 USD,10 a small sum compared to the millions the proposed residences will cost.

There is, of course, nothing happenstance about the development of “Paradise Found.” Prime Minister Gaston Browne—a former Antiguan banker and leader of the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party—has explicitly sought out and legislated for this kind of development in Barbuda. His political attention has been devoted to attracting investors in tourism and real estate development, intended to turn the twin state into an “economic powerhouse” in the Caribbean.11 To authorize De Niro’s project, Browne designed the Paradise Found Act in 2015 to override the community approval sections of the 2007 Barbuda Land Act—applicable to the 391 acres designated for the resort. Many Barbudans were resolutely opposed to the law. Community leader Mackenzie Frank called it a “direct undermining of the 2007 Barbuda Land Act,” which provides for the “democratic participation of people in land alienation to foreign interests.”12 [. . .]

The encroachment did not end there.

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma passed with unprecedented strength, devastating Barbuda. Flying in a helicopter over the island the day after the storm, Prime Minister Browne declared it “barely habitable.”14 The army was deployed to evacuate Barbudans to shelters in Antigua, where they stayed for months. The official justification was that another storm, Hurricane José, was approaching. However, Barbudans resisted this evacuation, as they had wanted to start rebuilding their homes and participate in the international recovery efforts, especially after José passed without making landfall on the island. The official media worked to establish a different narrative, reporting: “95 percent of Barbuda’s buildings were destroyed. Barbuda residents flee.” [. . .]

Please read the full article at

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