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5 years after Hurricane Irma, privatization & profit still put before preservation & reconstruction

Today marks 5 years since Hurricane Irma devastated the island of Barbuda, forcing the entire population to be evacuated to neighbouring Antigua – with many people losing their homes, schools and livelihoods to the Category 5 storm. The lack of reconstruction efforts prevented many residents from returning to their island for months. Yet, over the last five years, the situation has worsened. The central government of Antigua and Barbuda has defended and promoted the construction of a multi-million-dollar luxury tourism resort and golf course on a protected wetland and international Ramsar Site, and pushed through new laws that enabled prominent U.S. investors to construct more luxury homes without the need to consult the local population and irrespective of their customary land rights. The Government and foreign business’ projects are obliterating hundreds of years of communal land ownership on the island, which is resulting in an environmental catastrophe. 

GLAN, on the instruction of Barbuda Council, submitted extensive evidence to the Geneva-based Ramsar Secretariat, the body responsible for ensuring protection for listed wetlands including Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon National Park. So far, our calls for action and an international inspection mission have gone unanswered. Earlier this year, a group of UN legal experts expressed deep concern about the human rights implications of developments on the island catering for ultra-wealthy tourists, but this appeal has been ignored by both the Government of Antigua and Barbuda and the parties to the Ramsar Convention.

As another hurricane season approaches, GLAN denounces the failure of the central government and the international community alike to help Barbudans recover from Hurricane Irma, achieve adequate climate adaptation and enjoy their rights to self-determination and a healthy environment. Instead, a model of ‘development’ that is outdated and misaligned with the people’s needs at the time of climate change and extreme weather events is being imposed on the island.

GLAN is particularly concerned by the intimidation of environmental rights defenders on the island. More than 20 islanders who investigated the sites of construction in 2020, have been summoned to appear in court later this month on charges of trespassing. Such charges effectively silence dissent against the ongoing confiscation of land. In times of a heightened global climate crisis, luxury tourism projects on the eco-systems of a low-lying island are the exact opposite of what is needed. The situation in Barbuda is representative of a worldwide phenomenon of land grabbing in the name of economic growth and provision of service for the elite.

Five years after the hurricane, GLAN considers that the Government, developers and their enablers, investors, customers and contractors have failed to respect the human rights of Barbudans if not actively impacted them. They have failed to meaningfully engage with the local population and conduct appropriate environmental and human rights due diligence and ignored customary land rights. It is apparent that human rights due diligence policies and processes have not been implemented.

We call on the international community, and in particular the Commonwealth and the United States as the country of origin of several investors and contractors, to ensure these actors’ respect for human rights and the environment. We urge multinational enterprises to take their obligations seriously and immediately halt their activities . We also call – once more – on State Parties to the Ramsar Convention and its Secretariat to assess wetland destruction and require the State of Antigua and Barbuda to adequately disclose activities on the Ramsar site, and to agree on a fact-finding mission. Finally, we call on donors to the State of Antigua and Barbuda to pay attention to what is happening on the island on Barbuda and its implications in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation.

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