A land rights storm brewing in Barbuda

Homes sit in ruins at Codrington on the island of Barbuda. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The government wants to remove the island's collective ownership, but the tragedy of Hurricane Irma is not the time to turn the clock back on tenure security

Millions have learned of the existence of the small island of Barbuda (161 sq. km), through the havoc that Hurricane Irma wreaked on the island, destroying most buildings, roads, water, and power installations. What they may not know is that the less than 2,000 Barbudans collectively own their island. This has a long de facto history among the former slave community on the island, eventually entrenched in law in 2007. This communal ownership has been under threat since, now heightened by Hurricane Irma. Following the island’s mass evacuation, the Antiguan-dominated government of the small independent state of Antigua and Barbuda (1981) announced its intention to repeal the Barbuda Land Act in favour of individualized freehold tenure, and seemingly intending to make the rest of the island disposable national property. The Prime Minister argues that Barbudans need individual freehold title to secure bank loans to rebuild their houses. History suggests the stronger motive is to free up the island for purchase by international and Antiguan interests to establish private tourist resorts. The contested issue of a 198 years leasehold to a resort company owned by Robert De Niro and the Australian billionaire James Packer is a case in point. Investors typically perceive collective ownership as an impediment. Yet the Barbudan land law explicitly enables Barbudans to lease land, and at least one other investment has met their almost unanimous approval, taking their terms into account, and without losing their ultimate title to their island.

Browne’s arguments ring hollow in the 21st century. Arguments that individualized land ownership is the only route to growth and development no longer have the resonance they enjoyed in the past including in the hands of global policy influencers like The World Bank, the position of which has shifted dramatically in the last two decades. Modern land laws increasingly provide for collective ownership, and in a manner which endows these rights with the same legal force and effect given to individual and corporate entitlements. Local preference for collective tenure is generally for reasons of history along with patterns of land use and livelihood dependence that involve communal grazing, use of forests or foreshores. Retaining group title also gives communities a stronger voice when negotiating investor applications for parts of their lands, which are coming thick and fast in an age of globalized land access.

Nor do arguments ring true today that mortgages are the only or safest means of obtaining loans. Medium and micro-credit developments thrive precisely because they do not risk a poor family’s only capital asset and do not require salaried employment as the basis for mortgage repayments. In 2018 the UN Office for Human Rights will ask the General Assembly to consider a major new declaration protecting the interests of rural populations as individuals or communities, and within which sector of several billion people, most of the world’s most poor fall. One of the pivots of the draft declaration is the right of communities to collectively own and manage lands and natural resources and to be securely acknowledged as owners through entitlement or legal declamation.

While leaders of the small Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda are well-intentioned, the tragedy of Hurricane Irma is not the time to turn the clock back on tenure security. Rather, it offers an opportunity for the State to explore an inclusive and fair way forward to aid Barbudans, without doubling the tragedy by stripping them of their long-fought for ownership of their homeland in the name of recovery.

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