Sunday, March 15, 2015
It sounds like the ultimate Caribbean island comedy. There’s Robert De Niro in a starring role and Princess Diana in the back-story; there’s Australian billionaire James Packer, whose father, Kerry, ran World Series Cricket. For the backdrop, there are pink-and-white beaches, clear blue waters, a frigate bird sanctuary, and a deserted super-luxury resort. For storyline, we’ve an island community torn between two warring factions, each ready for larger-than-life character casting.
And for hard-story backup, it’s the classic small-island dilemma. You’re in a mind-numbingly beautiful location, but where do you look for cash? Government handouts? Or pop some of your heritage to a manna-from-heaven investor? If the latter, on what conditions and at what price? You’re in Barbuda. That’s the number two island in Antigua-Barbuda. Just 62 square miles, to Antigua’s 108; and 1,638 people at the 2011 census, to 80,000 on the larger island.
It’s crying out for that cliché of Caribbean journalism, a “Trouble in Paradise” headline. Early this month, Barbudans met to vote on a US$250 million proposal for a super-luxury Paradise Found resort, to be built on the site of the abandoned K-Club, Princess Diana’s favoured island getaway. The lead role backers are Packer and De Niro.
Prime minister Gaston Browne spoke forcefully in favour and greeted voters individually. The meeting turned rowdy. A former Barbuda Council member, Fabian Jones argued that Browne should not speak and was taken into custody for disorderly conduct. When it came to the vote, there were 206 in favour, 175 against. On the “No” side was Mackenzie Frank, a former Antigua and Barbuda senator. He has now launched a legal action to block the project with high-flying lawyers from London, Miami, and the local bar.
He argues that the terms of the deal won’t take Barbuda to paradise. The developers want a 198-year lease on 1,141 acres of prime land, including airport and Eco-lodge add-ons. They are offering an up-front US$2.4 million, to cover the first 118 years. That’s around US$17 per acre per year, for Barbuda’s prime tourist site. Frank also argues that the vote breached the terms of the Barbuda Land Act, passed just eight years ago.
Traditionally, land in Barbuda has been held in common by the island’s inhabitants. In the slave period, the island was owned by the Codrington family. After Emancipation, islanders were left pretty much to themselves. Fishing and small-scale farming provided food, and earned a little cash. Today, the only big employer is the Island Council, led by 11 elected members.
The Barbuda Land Act sets rules for managing the island’s common property. Proposals for development must first be agreed in outline by the islanders. Then the council looks at a detailed scheme. That then goes to the national Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda, and back to the voters of Barbuda for final approval. That’s what the law says. But for Paradise, it was different.
Cabinet approval came first, in November 2014, along with a 15-year tax holiday. Right after that, De Niro—a frequent visitor to Antigua’s Jumby Bay resort—was appointed Special Economic Envoy for the government of Antigua and Barbuda. Barbudans got their first say afterwards, in January this year; and their chance to vote this month. Frank says they have yet to see an Environmental Impact Assessment. He also contests the voting process. Barbuda Land Act regulations say there may be a show of hands, unless a secret ballot is requested. Only Barbudans can vote.
Instead, those present were asked to sign their name for or against, on a yellow notepad for all to see. And, says Frank, votes from non-Barbudans were accepted. Taxes paid by Barbudans go to the national treasury, whose subventions meet most of the council’s costs. Gaston Browne’s Labour government, elected in June last year, says Barbuda must earn its own keep and become a net contributor to the economy.
The council owes its staff US$1.85 million in unpaid wages. The vote to approve Paradise earned the council a US$1.4 million cheque, received last Thursday along with other funds; workers will now be paid. When the up-front money is spent, supporters say there will be jobs in Paradise—cleaners, security, gardeners. But most of the skilled staff will be from Antigua, or from other islands—both in the construction phase, and when the resort is up and running.
The next couple of weeks should be exciting. On Wednesday, Mackenzie Frank’s legal challenge opens in the High Court, with an application for a judicial review of the Paradise Found approvals. That legal drama will run and run; whoever loses first-round is likely to appeal, right up to the Privy Council. A week later, there’s a Barbuda Council election. Four of the 11 seats are up for grabs. The result should be close. In last year’s general election, Labour’s Arthur Nibbs won the Barbuda seat with a margin of just one vote.
For Barbudans, this is no comedy; it’s their island’s future.