A letter has been sent from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to the central Government of Antigua and Barbuda, asking them to provide more information on the luxury Barbuda Ocean Beach Club development and a nearby international airport. The Barbuda Ocean Club will have 495 residences, including 175 oceanfront properties, along with numerous amenities including a beach club and golf course, on an island that is 14 miles (23km) by 7.5miles (12km).
OHCHR expressed “deep concerns” over a sprawling resort marketed exclusively to the uber-rich being built on Barbuda, a tiny Caribbean island and one of the last places on Earth to be communally owned.
The involvement of UN “Special Rapporteurs” – independent experts who monitor and publicly report on human rights violations around the world – places greater scrutiny on the foreign investors’ projects. Construction of the resort has continued in the wake of a devastating hurricane that hit the island in 2017, with the local community still reeling from the disaster and awaiting a fully functioning hospital, reliable power and home repairs. John Mussington, the high school principal on Barbuda and a marine biologist believed involvement of the UN human rights commission was crucial to Barbudans’ survival as a community. He said that since the 2017 hurricane, the local people had struggled to be heard, not just internationally, but on a local level.
The developments are facing multiple legal complaints which allege dismantlement of Barbudans’ historical legacy and legal rights, and significant harm to fragile ecosystems including internationally important wetlands.
The letter states that “we would like to express our deep concerns regarding the potential impacts of the Barbuda Ocean Club Project on human rights, including the rights to food, water and sanitation, housing, and a healthy environment, as well as cultural rights”. The UN asks, “Please explain the rationale for permitting such large and intrusive developments within a national park and internationally designated RAMSAR area, both of which are intended to protect and conserve biological diversity.”
Mr Mussington said: “The whole atmosphere they are painting is one of limited access, which means that Barbudans are not in the picture. We cannot sit back and allow our entire way of life, culture, everything, to be eliminated for a real estate venture.” He added: “We intend to maintain our way of life and our culture because it’s not reasonable to ask us, as a unique people, to just disappear ourselves. We want the world to know that these billionaires, these persons who have the wealth, when you purchase one of these properties, you are actually buying the death of Barbudans as a culture.”
Barbuda is owned collectively by its 1,800 citizens, many the descendants of African slaves brought to the island by the British during the colonial era. Communal ownership means each Barbudan has rights to a plot of land.
"A cleaner can apply for beachfront property and get it, and so can a doctor. So there’s no great inequality in Barbuda,” one council member explained.
In the past, foreign developers were granted leases and projects required the consent of a majority of Barbudans. Unlike on other Caribbean islands, including larger sister island Antigua, where the central government is located, Barbuda has avoided an overdeveloped, privatised oceanfront and flotilla of cruise ships.
Four years ago, Hurricane Irma flattened virtually every structure, scattering the small community to Antigua and beyond. While Barbudans were displaced from their island, the 2007 Barbuda Land Act, which codified their communal ownership, was quietly changed by the central government. It was declared unconstitutional that the island belongs solely to Barbudans, as it had for more than 180 years. The changes also did away with requiring the obligatory consent of the Barbudan people for major development. The Barbuda Ocean Club appears to have taken advantage of these changes. The ocean club’s plots are valued upwards of $3m and that does not include the price of the luxury villas that will be built upon the land.
The central government Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, a former banker, has made clear his disdain for Barbuda’s collective land rights, calling it a “glorified welfare system”, that has left the island dependent on wealthier Antigua. He is a cheerleader and ally for foreign developers. The island’s MP, Trevor Walker, who is also a member of Barbuda’s local elected council, called the prime minister’s changes to the Barbuda Land Act “an unforgiveable sin”.
He explained, “You cannot alienate assets of over a billion dollars, which, for example, is what PLH has now in terms of land – over 700 acres – and just give the people some jobs and think that we are going to be okay. It’s not okay.” Mr Walker also said that when the Barbudans voted approval of the original project it had no plans for a golf course or a marina: “all they came to ask for was some land in terms of developing a hotel.”
Mr Mussington, who has been part of those meetings, told The Independent: “In 2016, what was put before the council and the people is definitely not the details of what is being done now.”
The local community were duped over its vast environmental and social toll.
The OHCHR human rights investigators have also asked for more details on how construction of Barbuda’s new international airport came about. Following Hurricane Irma, stretches of the island’s forest – habitat for indigenous deer and communal farming, grazing and hunting grounds – were destroyed to build airport strips by Bahamas Hot Mix, a company based in the Bahamas. Such development is supposed to require Environmental Impact Assessments. While two EIAs have been conducted, as the UN letter outlines, “there was no prior consultation with the population and, until today, the environment impact assessments are not publicly available”. Barbuda currently has no direct commercial flights, so the new airport large enough to accommodate flights from as far away as London importance is exclusively for the resort.
The UN Human Rights investigators also say they are “deeply concerned” about the resort’s location amid the fragile ecosystems at Codrington Lagoon and Palmetto Point. These are areas of national park and internationally important wetlands under RAMSAR – the only global treaty to focus on the protection of a single ecosystem – which help prevent climate-linked coastal erosion and flooding, enhancing water quality, sequestering carbon and providing habitat to endangered species.
Barbuda is a hotspot of biodiversity and home to the world’s largest breeding and nesting colony of the Magnificent Frigate Bird. The lagoon’s mangroves and seagrass protect the island during extreme weather, like hurricanes, which are exacerbated by the climate crisis.
Mr Mussington said, “The climate crisis is more a problem of unequal use of resources versus using up things that are not conducive to the sustainability of the planet. We want people to know that when you buy into this exclusive residential property on Barbuda, you actually against Planet Earth and living sustainably.”