LAND GRAB & WETLAND DESTRUCTION in BARBUDA
Photo: Construction of Barbuda Ocean Club on Codrington Lagoon National Park (Oct 2020)
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma damaged approximately 90% of the island of Barbuda, in the Caribbean State of Antigua and Barbuda. This was followed by a series of political and legislative shocks aimed at reducing the authority of the people of Barbuda over the island and accelerating the privatization of large tracts of land in favor of foreign investors. This is having significant negative implications for the environmental and social resilience of the island and its inhabitants. One of the latest acts of privatization is the 2017 lease that the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has concluded with PLH Barbuda, a local company owned by a US-based partnership called Peace Love and Happiness (PLH).
Since 2018, PLH Barbuda and Discovery Land Company, a US-based real estate developer and operator, have been preparing the site to build an exclusive resort with 450 luxury residences on private plots and a golf course, called "Barbuda Ocean Club". The site falls within the Palmetto Point and Low Bay areas of Codrington Lagoon National Park (“CLNP”). PLH Barbuda and Discovery Land Company have operated on the island through a lease that the Barbuda Council considers in breach of the Barbuda Land Act, 2007. This legislation codified the island’s unique collective tenure system established after the abolition of slavery. For two years, deforestation and sand mobilization for the PLH development have severely affected the ecology of CLNP and already irremediably compromised it. The wetland is also a Category II Protected Area under the International Union for Conservation of Nature and a designated Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention (Ramsar site no. 1488, since 2005).
Despite court orders to halt construction on 1 October 2020, locals have witnessed ongoing operations. On 18 October 2020, two members of Barbuda Council were arrested while attempting to inspect the controversial concession as permitted by the laws applicable in Barbuda.
The project is connected to several other land and environmental controversies, from Robert De Niro's Paradise Found concession in 2015 to the future construction of a new dock and a regasification station to store natural gas (likely from fracking) extracted in the USA for the private use of the Barbuda Ocean Club. Another linked controversy which emerged in 2017 when the islanders were evacuated to avoid another approaching hurricane after Irma concerns the construction of an international airport. Upon returning to the island, Barbudans observed that government authorities began to clear-cut a large strip of forest for an international airport in breach of national and international environmental regulations. According to the land concession granted to PLH (Barbuda), this airport was positioned to service PLH’s proposed exclusive residential community. Soon after GLAN launched an ongoing crowdfund in a bid to support legal efforts to resist this and other land grabbing efforts on the island.
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Machinery on Ramsar-listed wetland known as Coddington Lagoon, Barbuda (Ocober 2020)
On 9/12/20 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 wetlands 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 submissions 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 has been instructed by the Barbuda Council, the democratically elected representative of the people of Barbuda and the entity that is in charge of administering the land of Barbuda.
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.
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 Ramasar 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).
A 2018 report on land grabbing in Barbuda by Channel 4.
Palmetto Point (Codrington Lagoon) where Barbuda Ocean Club is under construction (Oct 2020)
By taking this action with the Ramsar Secretariat GLAN and the Barbuda Council are aiming to hold the State of Antigua and Barbuda and international investors to existing national and international law standards, to strengthen OECD-based corporations’ respect of human rights, climate change adaptation and mitigation goals, and to facilitate the establishment of an independent and third party assessment of the environmental impact of the Barbuda Ocean Drive development project.
The Ramsar Convention is the only global treaty that focuses specifically on the protection of wetlands. It has been signed by 171 countries and strongly rely on transparency, communication, self-assessments and peer-control. Peace Love and Happiness and Discovery Land Company are two private companies incorporated in the United States. When foreign investors undertake businesses in the State of Antigua and Barbuda (directly or through subsidiaries), they have to comply with the national legal system and with the obligations that are linked with their country of origin.