Citizens of Barbuda take on the government to protect their land rights. (Image Credits: Global Legal Action Network)

Two Barbuda residents take on government in land rights case

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The island of Barbuda in the Caribbean, suffered the wrath of category 5 Hurricane Irma in 2017, leading to the evacuation of 1600 people from the affected area.

Before these citizens could make their way back to their properties, US developers were allowed survey the region and build luxury resorts and an airport. Naturally, this angered the residents of the island, who were aware that according to a UN report, the project was a danger to the ecosystems of the island.

This marked the start of many unsuccessful legal battles, initiated by the citizens of Barbuda. Yet, two Barbudans are set to appear in front of a London based Privy Court, which could rule in their favour, bringing an end to all projects that will harm the pristine lands on the island.

This is being seen as an important issue for locals as the climate crisis continues to affect the living conditions in the Caribbean.

The privy council acts as the final court of appeals in the judicial system of Antigua and Barbuda. In this particular case, the question being asked is whether Jacklyn Frank and John Mussington, have the right and ability to challenge the projects being undertaken.

Jacklyn Frank happens to be a former member of Barbuda’s local governing council, while John Mussington is a scientist.

Frank chaired the Barbuda council from mid-April 2021 to January 2022. In a statement on this matter, the following was said, “Our environment, our culture, our history and our right to be consulted and participate in the future of our lands have been totally ignored.”

The pair have gone after the construction of an airport in Barbuda. Construction for the project began in 2017, right after Hurricane Irma came along and damaged Barbuda as the strongest such event that the island has ever experienced.

Most residents of the island have pointed out that bringing in foreign investors to the island is a push for capitalism at the cost of environmentalism.

David Boyd, a UN special investigator on human rights and the environment said, “Events unfolding on the Caribbean Island of Barbuda are a microcosm of what is wrong with our world.”

He added, “A beautiful, idyllic island being transformed into a playground for wealthy elites, with ZERO concern for people who have lived there for 100s of years or the sensitive ecology.”

The airport as a project backed by a collaborative effort between, the Antigua and Barbuda government, the Barbuda Council and PLH (Barbuda) Ltd., which was established by US billionaire John Paul DeJoria, a co-founder of the Paul Mitchell hair products company.

The project also involves Discovery Land Co., founded by Michael Meldman of Casamigos Tequila.

The entire project, once completed, will offer 495 luxury residences, an 18-hole golf course, a beach club and a natural gas storage facility on more than 600 acres of protected wetlands. Despite such an elaborate proposal, locals have made sure that cases continue to pile up against the endeavor.

For many citizens, the crux of the matter is the idea that even in today’s times, residents of the island have very little say in how their lands are developed. A major contributing factor to this thought process is the tradition of communal land ownership which has prevailed on the island for centuries.

The more recent push for privatization has not been appreciated much by locals. Currently, land is being leased for the aforementioned projects but the worry is that it could change into ownership.

These changes have contributed to the brewing resentment between urban Antigua and rural Barbuda, as the later accuses the government of land grabbing. PM Gaston Browne used strong words to describe the “small group” of people who are opposed to this kind of development, calling them “imbeciles”.

Furthermore, representatives of the Prime Minister’s office have refused to comment on the dispute.

To the dismay of environmental activists and residents, 400 acres which are the home of the red-footed tortoise and the Barbuda fallow deer, have already been cleared for the airport project.