Since 1834, when slavery was abolished on the Caribbean island of Barbuda, land there has been owned as a commons. The entire population collectively owns and controls the land, not private owners and developers. That may be about to change – with all the catastrophic results usually associated with enclosure.
After Hurricane Irma devastated 90% of the island’s buildings last year, it forced virtually all 1,800 residents to relocate to nearby Antigua or cities like New York and Toronto. International investors, working with Prime Minister Gastone Brown, a former banker, decided it was a ripe time to invoke the Shock Doctrine. This is the idea popularized by journalist Naomi Klein to describe how the market/state collusion to exploit national crises to ram through predatory neoliberal policies, which would otherwise be fiercely resisted by the citizenry.
In a great piece of reportage in The Intercept (January 23, 2018), Naomi Klein and Alleen Brown describe how the island government is taking advantage of the diaspora of Bardua residents. With no one around, it is an opportune moment to try to privatize the land and eliminate the communal ownership that has existed in Barbuda for nearly 200 years. A senator on the island described the communal ownership as something that was “born in the bowels of slavery and continued to grow in the post-emancipation world.”
The ostensible goal of the privatization policy is to provide a humanitarian response to the hurricane by facilitating outside investment and development. But the real goal is to open the door to investors and developers, who have long resented the democratic limits on development on Barbuda. They are eager to buy up pristine Caribbean land at bargain-basement prices and spur standard-issue Caribbean luxury resorts and ancillary businesses. The most notable such investor is actor Robert De Niro, who plans to build a luxury complex called Paradise Found Nobu.
According to Klein and Brown, “a sweeping 13-page 'amendment' to the hard-won Barbuda Land Act was officially introduced in Antigua and Barbuda’s House of Representatives” on December 12, 2017. “It includes changes that entirely reverse the meaning of the law. In the amendment, a clause declaring Barbuda ‘owned in common by the people of Barbuda’ was deleted and replaced. ‘The fundamental purpose of the Act is to grant to Barbudans the right to purchase the [land],’ the amended act reads.”
An outrageous act of enclosure, cast in the name of humanitarianism. Not surprisingly, international media coverage of these developments has been virtually absent. One exception: a twelve-minute video documentary by The New York Times.
The transition to a scheme of private ownership of land – and the rampant “development” that would ensue – would radically change the culture of the island and strip Barbudans of their control over their land and rights of self-determination. It would also force many residents to leave the island permanently because they could no longer afford to live there, except as employees at the new luxury hotels and resorts.
In light of the diaspora of residents, it is hard for the to fight back. If anyone knows of people or groups actively involved in efforts to save the communal ownership of Barbudan land, please let me know and I'll share the information here.
Update: There is a Facebook group dedicated to the Barbuda land grab and recovery delays at www.facebook.com/barbudasilentnomore.
To my readers: My apologies for the absence of blog posts in recent weeks. I am in the middle of writing a book that I hope to complete soon. Thanks for your patience!