‘Vulnerable to climate change so the rich can play golf’: An untouched island, a billionaire ‘environmentalist’ and a legal fight over a luxury resort

US developers and locals on Barbuda are at odds over the development and its impact on 200-year-old communal land rights, writes senior climate correspondent Louise Boyle

Sunday 13 December 2020 14:33
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A construction site with heavy machinery at Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon National Park, a designated wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, on October 10, 2020
A construction site with heavy machinery at Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon National Park, a designated wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, on October 10, 2020
I

n the three years since the tiny Caribbean community of Barbuda was ravaged by Hurricane Irma, locals have been engaged in a David-and-Goliath battle with powerful, well-connected US developers building luxury beachfront resorts for the ultra-rich. Earlier this week, the non-profit Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), filed a complaint with the Geneva-based Ramsar Secretariat, which oversees the protection of internationally important wetlands, on behalf of the island’s elected council.

It calls for “an international investigation into the destruction of a listed habitat”, allegedly caused by construction of the "Barbuda Ocean Club" which falls within the Palmetto Point and low bay areas of Codrington Lagoon National Park (CLNP) to the southwest of the island, GLAN states.

The Barbuda council wrote that the CLNP designated wetland was under threat "as a result of the actions of those who believe that their monied wealth should supersede the rights of the many".

The complaint calls on the international conservation body to "recommend" to the State of Antigua and Barbuda, the national assembly for the twin-island nation, that resort construction be suspended. The government did not respond to requests for comment.

A study this year by Dr Adelle Blair, environmental adviser to Barbuda's council, found that destroying the lagoon “will leave the Barbuda people more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change having decimated all the natural defences, seriously threatening its livelihood base and survival, to make way for a place for the rich to live and play golf”.

Dr Blair told The Independent that the lagoon's mangroves and seagrass protect the island during extreme weather, like hurricanes, which are becoming increasingly destructive due to the climate crisis. In 2017, Hurricane Irma wiped out virtually every structure on Barbuda.

Palmetto Point, pictured in October 2020, where Barbuda Ocean Club is under construction 

“Once you remove wetlands and the fullness of the dunes, adverse effects come into play,” Dr Blair said. “It means in future when we have hurricanes, the water will come further in, leading to more flooding.”

The lagoon plays a key role in the island's economy, supporting a thriving lobster fishery and an expanding tourism market for observing turtles, a nesting colony of magnificent frigate birds, the largest in the western hemisphere, and endangered species such as the West Indian whistling duck.

With pristine sandy beaches and clear waters, Barbuda is one of the last untouched corners of the Caribbean, avoiding the sprawling foreign tourist developments that cover other islands including Antigua, its larger neighbor. This is down to Barbuda's communal land ownership system, which traces its origins to the end of slavery and is now under threat.

The Barbuda Ocean Club is being financed a company called Peace Love and Happiness (PLH) Ltd, and built by US developer, Discovery Land Company.

PLH is backed by John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of hair care company John Paul Mitchell Systems and The Patrón Spirits Company. The self-described environmentalist, who is worth an estimated $3.2bn, sits on the board of Waterkeeper Alliance

John Paul DeJoria and wife Eloise arrive at Steven Tyler’s Third Annual Grammy Awards Viewing Party in January 2020

His foundation, by the same name, says it is "committed to contributing to a sustainable planet through investing in people, protecting animals and conserving the environment".

Discovery Land Company was founded by Michael Meldman, the third partner in George Clooney's billion-dollar Casamigos tequila brand, and owner of properties aimed at the uber-wealthy, which he once dubbed “frat houses for families”. 

Justin Wilshaw, project president of PLH’s development, told The Independent that construction has had no impact on the Codrington Lagoon and said the “site was severely degraded prior to our acquisition”.

Mr Wilshaw cast the project as misunderstood. He said that the developers are re-establishing the natural habitat, costal dune structures and vegetation "that have been damaged or destroyed by 50 years of Barbuda Council’s continued sand mining”.

He said the community was overwhelmingly supportive of the project, adding that the site employed more than 70 Barbudans. However, he said in an email, PLH “acknowledges the Barbuda Council is still the process of understanding the benefits of foreign investment".

He added: “We're changing lives on the ground. But there is a minority that, because they're not making any more money out of sand-mining because we stopped them with an injunction, this has become their issue.”

Global Legal Action Network said it had seen no evidence that sand mining previously took place on PLH's site. "The focus should now be on the breaches of environmental standards already recognised by the High Court of A&B, the Department of Environment and the Development Control Authority," the non-profit said in a statement.

‘Private play-pen’

The Barbuda Ocean Club, set on 700 acres, promises  “miles of beachfront” and “exclusive amenities weaved among luxurious authentically inspired residences”.

The resort is expected to have 400 residential units, an 18-hole golf course, beach club, farm and family park.

Trevor Walker, Barbuda’s elected representative in the national government and member of Barbuda’s council, told The Independent: "The way we live on Barbuda is that we use the island to survive by fishing, hunting and farming.

“We cannot afford for somebody to come and take 700 acres and use it as their little private play-pen. And there's no rigid, residual benefits to the people. It's not something we accept."

He added: “We don’t want to become the Bahamas, St Barths, one of those places where the rich and famous just takes over. We're looking for a development model that grows in a sustainable way for the people."

Mike Meldman, George Clooney and Rande Gerber (l-r) at a Casamigos  event in 2008

This summer, Mr Meldman boasted about the potential of Barbuda for its location on the “highway of superyachts”. 

“A marina would be great because a lot of the big yachts stay in the Caribbean in the winter and then go to the Med in the summer. And Barbuda is right smack in the highway of the superyachts that cruise the Caribbean back to the Med and the Med to the Caribbean,” he told Forbes.

The resort is also being pitched to guests as an “ideal heirloom community where you can extend your legacy for generations to come”. 

Barbudans have their own centuries-old legacy. The island is a bastion of communal land ownership, an approach dating back to the abolition of slavery in 1834, which was codified in the 2007 Barbuda Land Act and spells out that “no land in Barbuda shall be sold”.

The island is owned collectively among its 1,800 citizens, many the descendants of African slaves brought to the island by the British during colonial times.

“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 said.

While developers can obtain leases, projects need the consent of a majority of Barbudans. It has mean that few foreign companies have set up on the island and no cruise ships.

The Barbuda Ocean Club is one of two large developments which appeared to have been eased along by changes to Barbudans' communal land rights in the wake of 2017’s Irma.

The other development is helmed by actor Robert De Niro and located further along the shoreline on the site of the abandoned K-Club, once Princess Diana’s favorite vacation spot.

The Intercept reported in 2018 that the national government’s “Paradise Found Act” was “specially designed to approve De Niro’s project and bypass the Barbuda Land Act with its collective approval requirements”. At the time, Mr De Niro's project was called “Paradise Found Nobu”.

An aerial view of the town of Codrington after Hurricane Irma inflicted catastrophic damages to the island nation in September 2017

The memorandum signed by the national government and Paradise Found also set off alarm bells for Barbudans because the venture’s 198-year lease would convert to private land ownership if freehold tenure was established on the island, Reuters reported at the time.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, an ocean conservationist who has worked in Barbuda, wrote to Mr De Niro in the wake of the changes to the law. She dubbed it “disaster capitalism”.

In 2017, a 99-year lease had been signed between the Barbuda Ocean Club developers, the national government, and the Barbuda council. It stated that, in line with 2007 Act, land will be leased not sold, “absent new legislation to the contrary”.

The Barbudan community had voted for the PLH development in 2016. But in February, some said they would not have supported it, if the complete picture of its environmental and social impact had been made clear.

Local marine biologist, John Mussington, said that no one in Barbuda had ever heard of the plan that approved dredging the lagoon and building a marina, the Antigua Observer reported. 

Mr Wilshaw from Peace, Love and Happiness told The Independent that “at no point have we utilised the change in legislation to steamroll through anything”, adding that the project was supported ”by the community, 84 votes to 2 [votes]".

"So to ascertain that this has been done outside of their knowledge or request is simply not true.”

He added that although the developer is currently operating with a lease, any legal contract “is always flexible to adapt to whatever they change the law to”.

“That's not to say we'd do left or right, I'm not in a position to state that. All I can say is that we're going on the assumption, and the trades that we do, are on the leasehold basis. There is no other provision at this point, with our members, of doing anything else," he said.

The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, a former banker, has made clear his disdain for Barbuda’s collective land rights. 

Mr Browne called it a “glorified welfare system”, that has left Barbuda dependent on wealthier Antigua. He is an ebullient cheerleader and ally for foreign developers to the island.

This week, Mr De Niro told Town and Country that his Barbuda property - which appears to have been rebranded as “Nobu Beach Inn” - will offer one- to four-bed villas with private pools and beach access by 2023, across 391 acres. 

“I knew that if I were going to build something like this, I would have to find the perfect place. It’s a lot of work,” the actor said.

Trevor Horwell, CEO of Nobu Hospitality group, said that “we want local families to be a part of this, and to be proud of it.” Nobu Hotels did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent.

Hurricane Irma

In September 2017, after Irma tore through Barbuda with winds of 180mph, the Prime Minister ordered a mandatory evacuation of Barbudans, who ended up scattered in temporary accommodation across Antigua and beyond.

While the community was displaced, a repeal was quietly made to the 2007 Land Act by the national government which would stamp out the communal land rights.

Mr Browne said he had given Barbudans the opportunity to purchase their land and unlock its “latent potential” while allowing them access bank loans for hurricane recovery.

“A well-developed property rights system is fundamental to any country’s growth and development,” he told Reuters, adding the central government in Antigua had been burdened by the crisis. (There’s no evidence that Barbudans would have been unable to access necessary recovery financing from the World Bank as a community, Human Rights Watch found.)

The repeal also eliminated a rule that said leases for major developments must be approved by the Barbuda Council and the consent of the majority of Barbudans.

Mr Walker, said he feared that Barbudans were losing their traditional way of life while the economic benefit of their island was reaped by foreign developers.

For several months after Irma, the community was permitted only restricted access to Barbuda, for a few hours a week. Many were unable to protect their roofless homes from the elements and lost crops and livestock.

“We lost everything,” Mr Walker said. “It was very bad for us psychologically, especially the children."

Offers to help rebuild Barbuda came from skilled workers throughout its diaspora and in the UK, US and Canada. Many offered to work at their own expense, GLAN said.

One article at the time noted how “crates of aid were redirected to other Caribbean islands, and all independent efforts by Barbudan communities were blocked by the Antiguan authorities, who preferred to organize the relief efforts directly".

“While we were not allowed to live [on Barbuda], the government had people here, surveying the entire island, coming up with this new vision that does didn't include the Barbudans," said Mr Walker.

Barbudans have taken up legal battles, including one over a new international airport on the island which GLAN says is “in breach of national and international environmental regulations”.

Professor Leslie Thomas QC, an expert in public international law at Garden Court Chambers, London, was instructed to bring a legal challenge by Barbudans, John Mussington and Jackie Frank, over the airport, which is reportedly being partly funded by developers Peace, Love and Happiness.

The litigation alleges fundamental breaches in planning permission, including an improper initial environmental impact assessment (EIA) which the Government of Antigua and Barbuda is yet to disclose, Prof Thomas told The Independent, after two years of request.

The government of Antigua and Barbuda has not been open and transparent, the barrister said.

A subsequent EIA, which was made public, found that the runway had been built on cavernous limestone. 

"Put into plain English, they built the airport runway above caves," said Prof. Thomas. "It means that with incoming or outgoing aircraft, especially a large international plane, the runway could collapse in sinkholes."

The case is currently awaiting a hearing at the Court of Appeals, a process which has been slowed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Separately, a case over the communal land rights dispute, brought by politicians, Senator Mackenzie Frank and MP Trevor Walker, won its application in October to be heard before the Privy Council in London.

"It's a really important case because it goes to the heart of whether the repeal of the land act was unconstitutional," said Prof. Thomas. “If the Privy Council decides [Mr Frank and Mr Walker] are right, a lot of what the government has done may need unpicking. It's going to be really messy.”

While the wheels of justice turn slowly, development continues on Barbuda.

In August, the Department of Environment sent a compliance notice to the Barbuda Ocean Club developers, saying “work was not being conducted in accordance with the conditions of approval for application”. 

It noted that development “has reversed the wetland mitigation actions previously in place and damaged the historic dune and may have historic palmetto vegetation”.

In October, the high court issued an injunction to the developers to stop all work at Palmetto Point after an action brought by the ouncil.

Days later, drone images showed heavy machinery moving large volumes of sand, according to GLAN.

Mr Wilshaw said work being carried out by the developers is not party to the court process and that it was PLH who had initially sought an injunction “to halt the illegal sand mining… on PLH’s leased land”.

He added: “This is in line with our stringent efforts to protect the environment, and restore the dunes that have been mined. Furthermore, we welcome public scrutiny of the project."

In September, two Barbuda Council members were arrested for trespassing and failing to wear masks when they tried to enter the site to see if the developers were complying with environmental rules. The cases are on hold pending the outcome of the injunction. 

Three years after the hurricane, Mr Walker says that Barbuda has struggled to get back on its feet and that people try not to become frustrated with the slow process and lack of support.

“The government [of Antigua and Barbuda] refused to rebuild the primary school, so we repaired it ourselves," he said. “The little clinic was repaired in August of this year. But we're still without a bank, the electricity goes off every day.”

He said that Barbudans are not wholesale against hotel projects or economic development but that projects must work in harmony with the way of life on the island.

“These models are all over," he said. "Go to the Bahamas, Jamaica, they're all the same. But these are huge populations, Barbuda has 1800 people. The development model has to be one that doesn't destroy our culture, destroy our heritage, that's all we're saying.

He added: ”I think Barbudans are a very resilient people and we will continue to fight for equal rights and justice."

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