Barbudans have always protected their right to use the extensive lands of Barbuda freely and in common, and this right was enshrined in law under a UPP (United Progressive Party) Antiguan government, led by Baldwin Spencer, through the Barbuda Land Act 2007. This law held all land on Barbuda in common for Barbudans and their descendants, wherever they may live in the world. It means in practice that anyone of Barbudan descent can use – free of charge – up to three areas of land on Barbuda to build themselves a house, for agriculture or for business, according to Council regulations, which have areas designated for each.
This right to use the land in common, and to self-determination for Barbudans, has been firmly established since the end of slavery when Barbudans refused to be moved off Barbuda to Antigua, and more recently in 1981, when it was central to the establishment of a separate and independent Barbuda Council at the Antigua and Barbuda Independence talks in the UK. The freedom to use the whole island for fishing, hunting and agriculture has sustained the small population through difficult times since then.
But it has also been used to hinder our economic development – when it is not in the interest of Central Government in Antigua – to develop Barbuda land on our own terms. This land-rights legislation only applies to Barbuda, and not Antigua; Antiguans are not entitled to free land here or on Antigua. Most Antiguans have little interest in Barbuda, and when asked say they have never been to Barbuda, so we believe they should not decide our future. We contribute to the Antigua economy on an everyday basis, we regularly need to make the costly journey to Antigua for all our essential goods and services, and Antiguan businesses benefitted enormously from Hurricane Irma, but we are not the same island.
Since a change of Government in Antigua, back to the ALP (Antigua Labour Party) we are now being forced to return to the bad old days of the control of Barbuda by Antigua Labour Party ministers. The Land Act has been challenged, the intention being to force unwanted development on Barbuda, to remove the powers of the Barbuda Council and to monopolise all potential economic benefits from the acres of prime Caribbean ‘real estate’ that exist over here. Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s Paradise Found Act is part of this – this 2015 Act was designed specifically to allow his new economic envoy (the actor Robert De Niro, and partner James Packer to take up huge areas of land on Barbuda in addition to their acquisition of the K Club lease, without reference to the Land Act. Since then the Land Act has been further amended to facilitate other large projects with long, cheap leases proceeding without local consultation, probably aiming eventually to give cheap freehold to these so-called investors.
Finally, after the island’s infrastructure was allowed to completely run down, and assisted by Barbudan Arthur Nibbs as Minister for Agriculture and Lands, the Land Act was repealed, removing rights that had existed on Barbuda for four hundred years. The disgraceful land-grab began immediately after Hurricane Irma, even before people were allowed to return from their evacuation in Antigua, to clear up their own homes. A huge area of wilderness was immediately bulldozed, to build an already abandoned new airport, in the immediate aftermath of a major natural disaster.
The Barbuda Land Act had been a response to historical attempts to undermine the long term security and identity of the people of Barbuda, and there have been endless attempts in the past to mislead or bribe people to give the land away. Robert Vesco and the Knights of New Aragon, Ed Joiner, Dave Strickland and the Llamas, Bruce Rappaport and Allen Stanford in Antigua… poor leadership and failed projects that have kept Antigua in the world’s top corrupt administrations and left Barbuda an economic backwater, dividing us politically, and continuing to prohibit genuine positive development on Barbuda.
In the past extensive – and expensive – litigation over many years eventually prevented the Antiguan Labour Party Government under Lester Bird’s leadership from continuing to mine sand and give away land on Barbuda.. John McDonald QC worked with Sir Hilbourne Frank to represent Barbudans in their struggle for land rights throughout this time, and with Mackenzie Frank, drafted the Land Act. So we are starting the same story again, as these and other attempts to take Barbuda land are currently being challenged in the courts.
In spite of this many people of different nationalities live and work happily and have families here on Barbuda; Syrian, French, Italian, English, American, and Caribbean nationals from Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Cuba and more. Non- Barbudans can easily and cheaply lease land from a Barbudan resident or from the Council, according to the procedures that were listed in the Land Act, and many do.
As a result Barbudans have a unique opportunity to enrich their lives through leasing or renting out a house or a business as is common in other parts of the world. The promotion of leases as a constructive way forward to develop Barbuda land without losing it forever has been continually and systematically overlooked or ignored by leaders over the years, coupled with missed opportunities to establish a port of entry, find small scale sustainable tourism projects that employ local people and pressurise the Antiguan banking system to recognise Barbudan land-rights and assist us with loans to facilitate development.
The evidence of this corruption is everywhere: Dulcina Hotel at River was allegedly given by an ALP Council to Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s wife, Maria Browne. Sunset Hotel is derelict. K Club – once leased by Krizia fashion designer Mme Mandelli who hosted Princess Diana – is said to have been sold as a lease with 72 years remaining to Robert De Niro, but to date no work has been carried out.
Projects like these could so easily be an asset to Barbuda under the terms of the original Barbuda Land Act. We are a beautiful twin island state, there is no need for conflict. But all of these leases have been given without the consent of the people of Barbuda, and all the income from these leases will now go to Antigua.
Responsible Tourism and international concern for Barbuda
As a result there has been very little genuine long term development on Barbuda which is a concern to all on Barbuda who visit, or who live here or overseas, and even more so, since Hurricane Irma. We need much more sustainable development and need a thriving local economy to compliment what Barbudans have already established themselves. So honest, environmentally-friendly, small scale tourism ventures with the appropriate level of funding behind them would be most welcome. Projects must put in a written proposal to Council, hold a series of prepared and public village meetings for the villagers to attend giving full details of their plans, and thereafter any major projects must be endorsed by Cabinet; as was clearly stated in the Land Act.
In the future Barbudans at home and abroad will continue to use their skills to sustain their island. The benefits of the small population on Barbuda are evident in the nature of the island, and these very special destinations are becoming increasingly desirable in an over-crowded world. We know why people want land here so badly – our community has successfully maintained much of what other Caribbean islands have lost – including a variety of wildlife only threatened by insensitive development and major hurricanes. Barbuda has many hundreds of acres of pristine mangrove surrounding the largest natural lagoon in the Eastern Caribbean, the only Ramsar site in Antigua and Barbuda. The acres of salt ponds here support sea birds and sea salt, and miles of scrub protect deer and land turtles, leaving them undisturbed – and at barbudaful we hope it stays this way. More and more visitors to the Caribbean are coming to stay on Barbuda as their favourite island becomes too developed, and when they look for something better they find it here – but it must be Barbudans first who benefit from this.