The people of Barbuda have always held their land in common. That land tenure system is now being threatened by financiers and their allies in the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Government, after Hurricane Irma brought the island to its knees in September 2017.
“95% of Barbuda's buildings were destroyed. Barely habitable. Barbuda residents flee,” the BBC reported a few days after hurricane Irma. Wikipedia, today, a year later, states that “Barbuda is empty for the first time in modern history.” The U.S. ambassador to Antigua and Barbuda declared in an Oxfam America forum that “[T]here's not a single living person on the island of Barbuda - a civilisation that has existed on that island for over 300 years has now been extinguished.”
This is not true. We visited Barbuda in July and participated in their Homecoming Week, an event which welcomed members of the Barbudan diaspora back to the island for the first time since the hurricane. We found a community that looked nothing like being extinguished. Children playing on the village square, a group of elders chatting under an African tree, a large tent put up for Homecoming Week, everyone dressed in their best Sunday clothes. Many houses had no roofs, others had brand new ones. Some roofs had people working on them, and yet others seem to have had no damage at all. The island looked beaten and underinvested, but far from dead.
“The day after the hurricane, I was having breakfast with my family on the porch, when an armed policeman came to my door to tell us we had to leave,” John Mussington, the principal of the island’s secondary school, told us, while we chatted under the tent after an ecumenical Thanksgiving service to celebrate the unity of Barbudans during Homecoming Week. “Imagine what it feels like to hear that they gave up on your island, while all you want to do is start rebuilding.”
Barbudans didn’t flee. They were forced to leave the island. Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s Government might have done so to make it easier to push through the dismantling of Barbuda’s communal land ownership, which had been planned for some time. It only took a hurricane to get it done. The forced evacuations, which lasted months, all but destroyed the local economy.
Barbuda’s communal land ownership is not unique in the world - more than 50% of the world’s surface is held collectively by indigenous people or local communities. In the Caribbean region, up to 100,000 hectares of land are held by Afro-descendant communities under customary tenure, yet only around 2 percent of these lands have received formal titles. But nowhere else is a whole island held in common. This makes Barbuda exceptional, because in the Caribbean you won’t find an island where the natural world is hardly affected by development and tourism.
The Prime Minister used the anguish caused by the hurricane and the time that Barbudans were forced away as an opportunity to amend the Barbuda Land Act. In this amendment, communal land rights are taken away and land was privatised. Land will be sold to Barbudans for $1 USD a plot. Barbudans say: “When you already own something, and someone comes in and says I will sell this thing to you, how offensive is that?!”
Barbudans cannot appeal the amendments until they are officially published. Garden Court Chambers, high profile lawyers in London, are defending the case of the people of Barbuda against their Government. There is confidence to win the case because the regulations in the Land Act haven’t been respected, which state that no changes can be made without consent of the people of Barbuda.
Browne has described the communal land ownership system in Barbuda as 'sentimental' and 'a myth', claiming that the Barbudans illegally occupy this land. According to him, the 'immense potential' of Barbuda can only be unlocked if land is privatized. In his ideology, only freehold tenure, which supposedly turns land assets into capital to be used as collateral for bank loans, can help rebuild Barbuda. The same argument is used across Latin America to privatize public lands in informal settlements. Informally held and not legally recognized property, in this view, is dead capital, which decreases the value of the asset, following the influential but contentious theories of the Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto.
What is the meaning of property if after 300 years of living on and protecting the land, Barbudans are still not seen as its proprietors?
Barbudans know they won’t be able to live on the island if property is owned not by them but by banks. Like in many other places, there will likely not be enough well-paid employment for Barbudans to pay off those loans, without banks repossessing the property. In many other Caribbean islands this system doesn’t work either, and local populations become impoverished and are forced to migrate as a result.
Barbudans are very much aware of this. "We are not going to serve rich men like indentured slaves, never again!", exclaimed Diann Jeffers, one of the organisers of the Homecoming Week, with others around her nodding in agreement. They have been labelled poor, primitive and underdeveloped, Browne even called them ‘deracinated imbeciles’.
But growing attention to recent returns to communal land ownership through land cooperatives or community land trusts as instruments to counter displacements and secure housing affordability in hostile markets, are deeply rooted in the ideas that Barbudans have preserved against all odds. The Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust in Puerto Rico is the first example of such a CLT in Latin America and the Caribbean, protecting the land of seven of the most deprived communities in Puerto Rico and combating structural marginalization.
In Barbuda no one is hungry, no one is homeless. No one is financially rich, but no one is indebted. “I’m the richest man in the world, I own all of this!”, said Devon Warner, a fisherman, when he took us on a boat tour around some of the most immaculate beaches in the world.
Should the land reform be pushed through against the will of Barbudans, can they transfer the land ownership to a Community Land Trust, governed by the people of Barbuda? It might be an option to hold onto their land governance system that has been effective in controlling development and preventing displacements.
By the time we visited Barbuda, almost half of the population, around 950 people, were living on the island again. Schools have reopened and the secondary school has taken up science projects again for food security: building vertical gardens, installing solar panels, cloning plants and fish farming. Food sovereignty is at the core of a people’s self-determination agenda: in Barbuda every young person knows how to fish, how to grow food and how to start a fire.
It is impressive how many threats to their communal life Barbudans have been able to withstand, with Hurricane Irma and the disaster capitalism that followed being only the latest chapter in their story. Communal land ownership has allowed Barbudans to maintain a development model that is radically different from other Caribbean islands, with strict community control over tourism development, agriculture and the protection of the world’s remaining natural resources, while strengthening themselves to face climate change.
Pushing through a privatised system for land tenure will foment out-of-control development by putting land on a speculative global market, displace people and destroy the natural world that we all depend on. We have to speak up and defend the stewards of our planet, no matter how small a place.
For more information, visit Facebook pages Barbuda: https://www.facebook.com/Barbuda/ or Barbuda Silent No More: https://www.facebook.com/barbudasilentnomore/
Click here for a recent documentary on Barbuda and the aftermath of Hurricane Irma:
About the authors:
Line Algoed is an urban anthropologist whose current PhD research at the Cosmopolis Center for Urban Research at the Free University of Brussels explores communal land ownership in the Caribbean as an alternative development model that allows communities to control land use, protect the environment and counter displacements. She focuses on communal land tenure systems in Barbuda and the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Antonio Carmona Báez is President of the University of St. Martin, in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten and has served as Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, and at the the Graduate School of Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. Dr. Carmona Báez is author of several books, articles, chapters and contributions concerning political economy, social policy, decolonial thought and the condition of labour in the Caribbean.