Challenging Destruction of internationally protected wetlands
Codrington Lagoon National Park is a Category II Protected Area under the International Union for Conservation of Nature as well as a designated Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention (Ramsar site no. 1488) since 2005. The Ramsar Secretariat, a Geneva based body, is in charge of overseeing the implementation of the intergovernmental Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.
According to Antigua and Barbuda’s Ramsar submission, Codrington Lagoon is a “relatively well-flushed and healthy ecosystem, comprising mangroves, seagrass beds, algal mats, tidal and mud flats, beaches and coral reefs, supporting a diversity of marine species such as juvenile lobster, reef fish, sea turtles (including endangered Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles), and marine mammals, as well as nesting sea birds.”
As a signatory of the Ramsar Convention, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has a series of obligations vis-à-vis the Ramsar site, of which several have been breached in the case of the Codrington Lagoon. They include to “formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List, and as far as possible the wise use of wetlands in their territory” (Art. 2), “pass without delay information to the continuing bureau on the change, possible change or likely change in the ecological character of any wetland in its territory and included in the List as the result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference” (Art. 3.2) and “promote the conservation of wetlands and waterfowl […] and provide adequately for their wardening” (Art. 4.1). In case a Ramsar Contracting party in its urgent national interests “deletes or restricts the boundaries of a wetland included in the List, it should as far as possible compensate for any loss of wetland resources, and in particular it should create additional nature reserves for waterfowl and for the protection, either in the same area or elsewhere, of an adequate portion of the original habitat” (Art 4.2).
On 22 February 2017, seven months before Hurricane Irma struck the island of Barbuda, PLH (Barbuda) Limited, a Barbuda-incorporated company financed by the US-based legal entity Peace Love and Happiness LLC (PLH) was granted two 99-years leases (known as “Palmetto Point” or “Barbuda Ocean Club”) by the Government of Antigua and Barbuda to construct an exclusive resort and community for wealthy clients.
The total surface of leased land amounts to 600 acres and it falls within the Codrington Lagoon National Park. The full project will include: 400 residential units, ranging in size from 2,000 to 12,000 square feet; an 18-hole golf course; beach club; farm and family park; and a social club. In addition, this facility will require significant infrastructure including: a waste-water treatment plant; power generators; stormwater drainage; telecommunications; and roads & bridges. Along with the funds of PLH (USA), PLH (Barbuda) Limited is working with the US-based Discovery Land Company (DLC), a developer in the luxury resorts in this region.
In December 2020, GLAN submitted a complaint to the Ramsar Secretariat to urgently intervene to arrange an independent advisory mission to visit and advise on ongoing and future threats to the protected wetland of the Codrington Lagoon. To date 79 missions have been organised by the Secretariat, some of which have occurred after contact from environmental organizations. The submission also asks that Codrington Lagoon is added to the Montreux Record, a register of wetland sites on the List of Wetlands of International Importance that guarantees further protection in those cases where changes in ecological character have occurred, are occurring, or are likely to occur as a result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference.
GLAN understands that the private developer, PLH (Barbuda) Ltd, has been allowed to remove mangroves and destroy other vegetation. Moreover, the developer started mining sand dunes, a crucial element of the ecological system of the island and a critical form of physical protection for the inhabitants. Such harms have been communicated by PLH (Barbuda) Ltd itself. Indeed, the company’s “Palmetto Peninsula Ecological Management Plan Report” dated 17 December 2019, prepared by Deborah Brosnan & Associates on behalf of the developer, admitted the destruction of buttonwood mangroves. This represents a direct breach of the IX Schedule of the Environmental Protection and Management Act 2015, No. 11 of 2015 and raises significant concerns with regards to the fulfillment of the State’s international obligations vis-à-vis the Ramsar site.
Palmetto Point (Codrington Lagoon) where Barbuda Ocean Club is under construction (Oct 2020)
Evidence demonstrates that, despite the environmental threat and the contestation of the developments, intensive destruction of the wetland is still ongoing and has even been increasing in recent months, including through the building of large artificial lagoons and the 18-hole golf course. At least three holes of the golf course have been constructed to completion, replacing the wetland. The wetland vegetation had previously been chipped up (to remove it). Now, developers have switched to dumping the vegetation into huge bonfires to get rid of the great amount of "debris". Eyewitnesses also confirm that workers have been digging deep into the bedrock at Palmetto Point to create artificial lagoons and observed the illegal movement of material from one construction site to another.
Earlier this year, GLAN obtained recent photographic evidence of ongoing destruction of the ecological integrity of Palmetto Point and the wider Ramsar site. For instance, driving tracks were observed on a turtle nesting site. GLAN also obtained images showing that PLH started constructing fences around what it considers to be its concession area, within and around the Ramsar site, which will interfere with the right to roam, the customary land tenure system, the usages on the island and possible animal pathways. Fences are never mentioned in the executive version of the EIA for Palmetto Point. Images show the placing of additional fencing around the area of PLH’s self-declared perimeter, the delineation of the parcel lines for the new estates of the Barbuda Ocean Club and the construction of the artificial dune.
In March 2022, GLAN prepared an updated, comprehensive submission to the Secretariat detailing the harms and risks to Ramsar site no. 1488. To date the Secretariat has not indicated what actions if any it will be talking.