In Barbuda, locals fight to protect a wetland and a centuries-old way of life

In Barbuda, locals fight to protect a wetland and a centuries-old way of life

An aerial view of the town of Codrington in Barbuda.

(UN/Rick Bajornas)

Palmetto Point, a wetland site on the island of Barbuda, comprises mangroves, seagrass beds, tidal flats and coral reefs. It is home to endangered species such as the hawksbill and leatherback turtles, as well as the Western Hemisphere’s largest colony of frigate birds. Soon, they will get a new neighbour – a luxury resort with a 150-room hotel, 450 residential units, a beach club, a marina and a golf course.

“The marine resources of Barbuda that support livelihoods, food security and ecotourism will be negatively impacted [by the development],” says John Mussington, a marine biologist and school principal based in Barbuda. “And the island and its people, already quite vulnerable to climate change, will lose what is needed for adaptive strategies.”

Barbuda wetland sites like Palmetto Point are essential to the lives of locals, both as a means of subsistence and as a natural defence against coastal erosion, and UN experts have warned the project could pose as a threat to Barbudans’ human rights.

A part of the sovereign Commonwealth nation of Antigua and Barbuda located in the Caribbean Lesser Antilles island chain, Barbuda’s unspoiled natural beauty is the product of a collective tenure system that has been in place since the abolition of slavery in 1834. Codified in the 2007 Barbuda Land Act, the legislation not only gives the roughly 1,800 inhabitants of the 160-square-kilometre, palm-fringed island equal rights to the land, but also allows them to democratically choose which developments come in via the democratically elected Barbuda Council, the local authority in charge of managing internal affairs.

However, since Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, destroying 90% of the island’s structures and forcing a mass evacuation to Antigua, both Barbuda’s communal system and socio-ecological resilience have been under threat. To get the island back on its feet, Gaston Browne, Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, has pushed for private ownership in the form of foreign investments. The ocean club under construction at the Palmetto Point wetland is one such venture.

Legislative changes to a communal system

The project is led by Peace, Love and Happiness (PLH), a US company run by Patrón Tequila co-founder John Paul DeJoria; and Discovery Land Company, a real estate developer owned by the American tycoon Mike Meldman. The Barbuda Ocean Club will sprawl over 800 acres, 700 of those inside the island’s only national park, which has been declared a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation of wetlands. Under the 99-year lease, PLH has agreed to pay US$150,000 to the Antigua and Barbuda government annually to develop the resort.

With only one seat in the House of Representatives held by the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM) against 15 by Prime Minister Brown’s Antigua Labour Party (ABLP), there was little Barbudans could do to fend off the 2016 and 2017 amendments to the Barbuda Land Act. The legislative changes not only overrode their communal system but also legitimised PLH the project.

This hasn’t stopped activists and surfers from raising awareness of what has been considered both a land grab and disaster capitalism.

“I had a message from someone saying a wave in the Caribbean was under threat,” says British surf photographer Al Mackinnon, referring to a surf spot at Palmetto Point. He first visited the island in 2012, both to photograph surfing and to witness first-hand the pristine nature his parents had spoken highly of over the years. But it was neither the waves nor the wildlife that prompted him to get involved with efforts to save the Palmetto Point wetland from his base in the UK. “As surfers, we can speak about the [damage to the] waves,” he tells Equal Times. “But there was also a need to amplify the message behind the locals’ campaign.”

Wetlands are our most important terrestrial ecosystems. According to a 2021 report by Ramsar’s Global Wetland Outlook, nearly 4 billion people worldwide rely on wetlands for health, food and water security, giving them an estimated yearly global value of US$47.4 trillion.

Moreover, coastal wetlands sequester carbon up to 55 times faster than tropical rainforests. And yet roughly 35% of global wetlands have vanished since 1970. This has happened at a rate three times faster than forests, making wetlands the world’s most threatened ecosystem.

Mussington laments the environmental consequences of the PLH project. But he is also worried about the lack of transparency in the decision-making. Among his main concerns is an environmental impact assessment conducted in 2017, which remains concealed from local residents. “This plan was developed and presented for approval to the DCA [Development Control Authority] at a time when Barbudans remained evacuated from the island and were not allowed to return, except a couple of hours per day in limited numbers to salvage personal belongings from their homes and return to Antigua,” says Mussington.

He also challenges the validity of a clause in the 2017 lease agreement signed by the then Barbuda council chair stating that the government had obtained all necessary consents of the people of Barbuda. “The Barbuda Land Act requires the consent of the people of Barbuda, not of the Council alone.”

A doubtful agreement for securing local jobs

The PLH has pledged to ensure that at least 75% of all its employees are citizens of Antigua and Barbuda, and it must submit a recruitment report to the Labour Commissioner annually. Even though the company claims that more than a thousand local jobs will be created, it’s unclear whether these jobs will promote sustainable development, according to Mussington. A clause in the lease moreover states that failing to meet the quota “will not constitute a breach of the agreement.”

“The long-term deterioration of the environment, the consequent impact on food security, and resilience to climate change have costs associated [with them], and these costs will exceed any short-term monetary gains” from the PLH project, argues Mussington. “The project is basically a speculative, luxury real estate sales venture, and the kinds of local jobs this supports are mainly low-paying and menial. The few high-paying jobs go to individuals which the company brings in,” he said, citing a recent construction project in the Bahamas as an example.

Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), a human rights NGO providing legal assistance to the Barbuda Council, takes a similar view. For Dr Tomaso Ferrando, a Belgium-based lawyer and member of GLAN, the 75% employment clause is not foolproof.

He says the salaries workers will earn will be less than the tax breaks PLH will receive, which means the company won’t really inject any money into the local economy.

“People in Barbuda need money for adaptation and support for local projects run by themselves,” says Ferrando. “Not to be employees of billionaires.”

GLAN is currently overseeing two court cases challenging local construction projects. The first was filed in 2018 and argued that the concession of Robert De Niro’s 2014 Paradise Found project, also on Barbuda, went against the constitution. The second, brought by John Mussington and a former Barbuda council chair, called for a halt in the construction of a new international airport due to the lack of an environmental impact assessment. Both cases were rejected by a local court for lack of standing. They have been brought to the Privy Council, the highest court of appeal for sovereign nations of the United Kingdom, and are expected to be heard this spring.

“The decisions of the Privy Council are key,” Ferrando says. “If the Paradise Found Act is against the constitution, the same should be [true] for the subsequent reforms to the Land Act that have been voted by the government (and not the Barbudan people) to facilitate investments, causing systemic repercussions on the legality of all the investments currently going on.”

A way of life

Land grabs are common practice across the world. Governments and corporations often set their sights on community-owned land for natural resource extraction, or industry and tourism development. And those who hold communal lands – roughly 2.5 billion people, according to a 2016 report – seldom have legal rights to it, which in turn puts their own rights at risk.

In Barbuda, communal land ownership isn’t just a sociopolitical framework – it is a way of life locals are keen to protect even though the system’s fate currently rests in the hands of a faraway court. “In 2018, there was a Barbuda Council election in which Barbudans voted overwhelmingly for the party which supports the communal land system [and] which is opposed to the PLH plan,” says Mussington. But that doesn’t change the fact that their right to vote on who leases their land has already been undermined by the Land Act amendments, as well as a central government which, according to Mussington, “is unilaterally pushing the PLH model of development on Barbuda.” So much so that those opposed to the policy have been branded as “economic terrorists” by the prime minister.

A visit by a Ramsar wetland committee to check on the state of the wetlands is expected between April and May of this year, and the hope is that an official mission will follow, which, together with international pressure, might persuade the government to reassess the PLH project.

While hope appears to be what keeps Barbudans fighting, a clear-sighted mindset is what helps them navigate the situation. “Barbudans, as Indigenous and tribal people by virtue of their special connectedness to the land and its resources, will cease to exist without their land system,” explains Mussington. “The PLH plan and Barbudans as a People cannot coexist. The success of one hinges on the elimination of the other.”