Nearly four months after Hurricane Irma devastated the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda, residents fear the central government on neighbouring Antigua is poised to revoke a centuries-old system of communal land rights in what activists have described as “disaster capitalism” at work.
Since emancipation from slavery in 1834, Barbudans have governed their land in common, without private ownership. But the Antigua and Barbuda government says that change is necessary to rebuild the island.
The prime minister, Gaston Browne, has pushed for the change since the Category 5 storm hit in September, arguing that freehold tenure is the only way to finance Barbuda’s reconstruction, where half of the island’s 1,250 structures are severely damaged or destroyed.
He is likely to get his way on 28 December, when parliament is expected to amend legislation that codified the 200-year-old tradition of communal ownership.
Browne has dismissed the law as “illegal” and a “myth”.
Under the existing law, all land on Barbuda is owned communally and land parcels cannot be bought and sold. Residents and their descendants can identify parcels for new agricultural, residential, or commercial development and confirm their claim with the democratically elected, 11-member Barbuda council. Browne’s proposed amendment would eliminate that system and establish private, freehold land ownership.
“Antigua and Barbuda is a unitary state,” Browne told the Guardian in November . “You will never see anything in the constitution of Antigua and Barbuda speaking to any ownership of any land in common. It does not exist in the constitution so you cannot pass a law that supersedes the constitution.
But Barbudan activists view the change as an effort to develop their island for mass tourism as in neighboring Antigua. Barbuda’s 1,600 people live in a single settlement, Codrington, while the rest of the 63-square-mile island has largely been left to its natural state of mangroves and scrub brush.
In constrast, tourism dominates 109-square-mile Antigua (population 80,000), from all-inclusive resorts to a downtown cruise port.
In an interview, Browne dismissed such concerns as the work of “a handful of deracinated imbeciles [who] are creating this problem”.
Three years ago, actor Robert de Niro and Australian billionaire James Packer signed a $6.45m lease with the government for a 391-acre mega-resort on Barbuda.
Most Barbudans are sheltering on Antigua following a mandatory evacuation when Hurricane Jose passed near the island in September. About 350 people have returned, but they continue to live off humanitarian aid without reliable access to power and running water. Only one shop is open, and the local primary school is in ruins.
Browne announced his proposals to end the existing system just one week after the storm, but held no formal consultations with Barbudans.
Since the November interview, his office has not responded to further questions.
“The matter affects Barbudans deeply,” said secondary school principal John Mussington. “Land is the seat of resources and it is the resources which people use to make their daily livelihoods.” Many Barbudans supplement their incomes by hunting and fishing.
Human rights lawyer Leslie Thomas filed an emergency injunction against the new law, but judgment has been reserved until at least January. If the amendment passes as expected, legal challenges are likely to follow, with the ultimate court of appeals the Privy Council.
Meanwhile, foreign governments who have pledged millions towards recovery are unwilling to get involved. DfID, which pledged £3m ($4m), referred the question to the Caribbean Development Bank, which will implement a $29m recovery project. “We will continue to monitor developments with regard to the issue of freehold title, in the context of the entire recovery effort,” a bank spokesman said.
Canada, which pledged $78m to the Caribbean, also referred to the land issue as an “internal matter”. The European Union, which pledged €300m ($360m) to the region, declined to comment.
“Western governments are proving slow to grasp that land rights are a basic human right in land-dependent economies that communities will rightly fight to the death for,” independent land tenure expert Liz Alden Wily told the Guardian.
“Any donor which idly lets its donation for disaster relief be used to dispossess vulnerable populations is party to a violation of human rights and will in due course be held to account for this.”