In Barbuda, locals fight to protect a wetland and centuries-old way of life
Palmetto Point, a wetland on the island of Barbuda, includes mangroves, seagrass beds, mudflats and coral reefs. It is home to endangered species such as hawksbill and leatherback turtles, as well as the largest frigatebird colony in the Western Hemisphere. Soon they will have a new neighbor – a luxury resort with a 150-room hotel, 450 residential units, a beach club, a marina and a golf course.
“Barbuda’s marine resources that support livelihoods, food security and ecotourism will be adversely affected [by the development]says John Mussington, 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 coping strategies.”
Barbuda’s wetlands like Palmetto Point are essential to the lives of locals, both as a means of livelihood and as a natural defense against coastal erosion, and UN experts have warned the project could pose a threat to the human rights of Barbudians.
Part of the sovereign Commonwealth nation of Antigua and Barbuda located in the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles island chain, Barbuda’s unspoilt natural beauty is the product of a collective tenure system in place since the abolition from slavery in 1834. Codified in the 2007 Barbuda Land Act, the legislation not only gives the approximately 1,800 inhabitants of the 160 square kilometer palm-fringed island equal rights to the land, but also allows them to democratically choose developments via the democratically elected Council of Barbuda, the local council authority responsible for managing internal affairs.
However, since Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, destroying 90% of the island’s structures and forcing a mass evacuation to Antigua, Barbuda’s communal system and its socio-ecological resilience are under threat. To get the island back on its feet, Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, pushed for private ownership in the form of foreign investment. The ocean club being built in the Palmetto Point wetland is one such venture.
Legislative changes towards a communal system
The project is led by Peace, Love and Happiness (PLH), an American company led by Patrón Tequila co-founder John Paul DeJoria; and Discovery Land Company, a property developer owned by American tycoon Mike Meldman. The Barbuda Ocean Club will span 800 acres, 700 of which will be 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 wetlands. As part of the 99-year lease, PLH agreed to pay the government of Antigua and Barbuda US$150,000 each year 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 Labor Party (ABLP), there was little Barbudians could do to push back the amendments of 2016 and 2017 to the Barbuda Land Act. . The legislative changes not only replaced their communal system, but also legitimized the PLH project.
That hasn’t stopped activists and surfers from raising awareness of what has been seen as both land grabbing and disaster capitalism.
“I received a message from someone saying that a wave in the Caribbean was in danger,” says British surf photographer Al Mackinnon, referring to a surf spot at Palmetto Point. He first visited the island in 2012, both to photograph the surf and to witness the pristine nature his parents had praised over the years. But it wasn’t the waves or the wildlife that got him involved in efforts to save the Palmetto Point wetland from his base in the UK. “As surfers, we can talk about the [damage to the] waves,” he says. Equal times. “But there was also a need to amplify the message behind the residents’ campaign.”
Wetlands are our most important terrestrial ecosystems. According to a 2021 report from Ramsar’s Global Wetlands Outlook, almost 4 billion people worldwide depend on wetlands for health, food and water security, giving them an estimated annual global value of 47.4 trillions of US dollars.
Additionally, coastal wetlands sequester carbon up to 55 times faster than tropical rainforests. And yet, around 35% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1970. This has happened at a rate three times faster than forests, making wetlands the most threatened ecosystem in the world.
Mussington deplores the environmental consequences of the PLH project. But he is also concerned about the lack of transparency in decision-making. Among its main concerns is an environmental impact study carried out in 2017, which remains hidden from local residents. “This plan was developed and presented for approval to the DAC [Development Control Authority] at a time when Barbudians remained evacuated from the island and were not allowed to return except for a few hours a day in limited numbers to collect 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 President of the Barbuda Council, stating that the government had obtained all necessary consents from the people of Barbuda. “Barbuda’s land law requires the consent of the people of Barbuda, not just the council.”
A dubious deal to secure local jobs
PLH is committed to ensuring that at least 75% of all its employees are citizens of Antigua and Barbuda, and it must submit an annual recruitment report to the Commissioner of Labor. Even though the company says more than a thousand local jobs will be created, it’s unclear whether those jobs will promote sustainable development, according to Mussington. A clause in the lease further states that failure to meet the quota “shall not constitute a breach of the agreement”.
“The long-term deterioration of the environment, the resulting impact on food security and resilience to climate change have associated costs [with them], and these costs will outweigh any short-term monetary gains” from the PLH project, Mussington asserts. “The project is essentially a speculative business selling luxury real estate, and the types of local jobs it supports are mostly low-paying and menial. The few high-paying jobs go to individuals 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 that provides 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 wages workers will earn will be less than the tax breaks PLH will receive, meaning the company won’t really pump money into the local economy.
“The people of Barbuda need money to adapt and support 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 concessioning Robert De Niro’s Paradise Found project in 2014, also on Barbuda, was unconstitutional. The second, led by John Mussington and a former chairman of the Barbuda council, called for the construction of a new international airport to be halted because of the lack of an environmental impact study. Both cases were dismissed by a local court for lack of standing. They have been brought before the Privy Council, the highest court of appeal for sovereign nations in the UK, and are expected to be heard this spring.
“The decisions of the Privy Council are essential,” says Ferrando. “If the Paradise Found Act is unconstitutional, so should it be. [true] for the subsequent land law reforms that were passed by the government (not the people of Barbuda) to facilitate investment, with systemic repercussions on the legality of all ongoing investments.
A way of living
Land grabbing is a common practice around the world. Governments and corporations often look to community-owned land for the extraction of natural resources or the development of industry and tourism. And those who hold communal land – around 2.5 billion people, according to a 2016 report – rarely have legal rights to it, putting their own rights at risk.
In Barbuda, communal land ownership is not just a socio-political framework – it is a way of life that locals are keen to protect, even as the fate of the system currently rests in the hands of a distant court. “In 2018 there was a Barbuda Council election in which Barbudians voted overwhelmingly for the party that supports the communal land system [and] who opposes the PLH plan,” Mussington says. But that doesn’t change the fact that their right to vote on who leases their land has already been undermined by land law changes, as well as by a central government that Mussington says is “unilaterally pushing the PLH development model in Barbuda.” So much so that those who oppose this policy have been branded “economic terrorists” by the Prime Minister.
A visit by a Ramsar Wetlands Committee to ascertain the status of the wetlands is planned between April and May this year, and it is hoped that an official mission will follow which, together with international pressure, could persuade the government to reassess the PLH Project.
While hope seems to be what keeps the Barbudians fighting, a clear-sighted mindset is what helps them navigate the situation. “Barbudians, as indigenous and tribal peoples because of their special connection to the land and its resources, will cease to exist without their land tenure system,” says Mussington. “The PLH plan and Barbudans as a people cannot coexist. The success of one depends on the elimination of the other.