Hurricane-hit Barbudans protest to save communal land from developers

Outside a Commonwealth summit in London, islanders demand their Antiguan prime minister, who called them ‘imbeciles’, reveal how aid money has been spent

Hurricane Irma destroyed nearly a quarter of buildings on Barbuda (Pic: Mohammid Walbrook, 2017)


Barbuda was among the islands hardest hit by Hurricane Irma, the category 5 storm that ripped through the Caribbean in September 2017.

Seven months later, Barbudan campaigners say there is little sign of relief funds reaching the ground – and accuse the government in its larger neighbour Antigua of exploiting the crisis to sell their land to developers.

At a summit of Commonwealth leaders in London, they called on prime minister Gaston Browne to account for an estimated $50 million of donations from development banks and allied countries.

Every building on the island was damaged by the storm, with 23% completely destroyed. More than half of the 1,700 residents evacuated have returned, according to Barbudan MP Trevor Walker. Yet only around a quarter of homes have electricity and running water. Schools and council buildings have not been rebuilt.

“We are very disappointed because it is almost seven months after the hurricane and… we just can’t see where that money has been spent,” Walker told Climate Home News. “We are calling on those donors to ask the government to give an account.”

Campaigners to protect Barbuda’s communal land rights. Trevor Walker MP is third from the left (Pic: Megan Darby)

On an unseasonably warm April day, Walker was joined by a dozen members of the Barbudan diaspora from Leicester, UK, in a demonstration at a summit of Commonwealth leaders, which is being attended by PM Browne.

Liza Thomas, who was born in Britain and visits her father’s homeland Barbuda regularly, was among campaigners granted an audience with Browne earlier in the week.

“We were grateful that he listened to us,” said Thomas, “but we were not able to pin him down to any actions.” Browne reiterated promises to publish accounts of how relief funds were spent, without committing to a date, she said.

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At the same time as demanding accountability, Barbudans are locked in a battle with Browne’s administration over land ownership. Since emancipation from slavery, the islanders have operated a system of communal land rights.

Browne wants to open up the island up to foreign investment, notably the Paradise Found beachfront development backed by actor Robert De Niro. To facilitate that, his government is repealing the 2007 Barbuda Land Act.

The prime minister has dismissed the opposition as anti-development. “The deracinated Imbeciles, Ignorant elements [sic], say that by building Barbudans an airport, we are stealing their land,” he wrote in a November Facebook post, followed by three crying-with-laughter emojis. He could not be reached for comment on this article.

“Those developments are not in our interest. They haven’t even consulted us and they want to give a lease of 200 years to Robert De Niro,” said Walker. “Our communal land ownership that we have been practicing for more than 300 years, for the government to try to change that without consulting us is unacceptable.”

Walker met with two barristers in London to discuss a legal challenge to the government’s plan, he said.

A Barbudan home after Hurricane Irma hit (Pic: Mohammid Walbrook, 2017)

Tropical storms are forecast to get more intense and wet with global warming, raising the risk of destruction for small island states.

James Frank, a native Barbudan who moved to the UK when he was 10, said Barbuda needed a sea wall and better hurricane defences. “I grew up with hurricanes, they were mild compared to the last one, Irma,” he told CHN at the demonstration. “Climate change has made our hurricanes worse. Before, they were very easy to handle – shutting everything down and boarding everything up.”

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