Two Barbuda residents fight the government, seeking to protect land
View of the Barbuda Ocean Club at Coco Point next to Princess Diana beach in Barbuda, Antigua and Barbuda, Monday, October 23, 2023. When Hurricane Irma slammed into the tiny Caribbean island as a powerful Category 5 storm in 2017, the government temporarily evacuated the entire population of some 1,600. Before many of them had trickled back, US developers were allowed in and permitted to build an airport and luxury resort, a project that has angered islanders and that the UN warns is a danger to a wetland and other fragile environments. (AP Photo/Mohammid Walbrook)

When Hurricane Irma slammed into the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda as a Category 5 storm in 2017, the government temporarily evacuated the entire population of some 1,600.

Even before many people returned, United States developers were allowed in and given permission to build an airport and luxury resort, a project that has angered islanders while the United Nations warns of danger to wetland and other fragile environments.

Barbudans have waged largely unsuccessful legal fights against the project. But two islanders appeared Wednesday before the London-based Privy Council, hoping to win a ruling that will lead to communities having the right to protect pristine lands coveted by foreign investors amid the climate crisis.

The Privy Council, final court of appeal for the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, is being asked whether Jacklyn Frank, former member of Barbuda's governing council, and scientist John Mussington have standing to challenge decisions by the government.

“Our environment, our culture, our history and our right to be consulted and participate in the future of our lands have been totally ignored,” said a statement from Frank, who chaired the council from April 2021 to January 2022.

The pair are challenging the construction of an international airport in Barbuda that began in September 2017, the month that Hurricane Irma hit the island as the strongest hurricane ever observed in the open Atlantic.

Critics say the rapid welcoming of international developers into Barbuda is a glaring example of disaster capitalism.

“Events unfolding on the Caribbean island of Barbuda are a microcosm of what is wrong with our world,” David Boyd, a UN special investigator on human rights and the environment, wrote on the X platform in October. “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 ongoing airport construction is part of a deal involving the Antigua and Barbuda government, the Barbuda Council and PLH (Barbuda) Ltd, established by US billionaire John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of the Paul Mitchell hair products company. Also involved is US-based Discovery Land Company, founded by Michael Meldman of Casamigos Tequila.

The companies are seeking to build 495 luxury residences, an 18-hole golf course, a beach club and a natural gas storage facility on more than 600 acres of protected wetland.

But the issue goes beyond opposing the project.

Many Barbudans feel the deal exemplifies how they have been stripped of their right to say how their island should be developed. A centuries-old tradition of communal land ownership that emerged after Britain abolished slavery gave way to amendments in recent years that allow property to be privatised.

Currently, the government is leasing the land to the developers, but residents worry that could change.

Resentment over land changes has led to a tense relationship between highly developed Antigua and rural Barbuda, where some residents accuse the government of a land grab. In a 2017 interview, Prime Minister Gaston Browne was quoted as saying only a small group of “deracinated imbeciles” oppose development.

A spokesman for Browne's office did not respond to a message seeking comment about the dispute. An attorney for PLH (Barbuda) Ltd and a representative for the development did not return messages for comment.

Roughly 400 acres (162 hectares) that is home to the red-footed tortoise and Barbuda fallow deer already have been cleared to build the airport.

Construction began without an environmental impact assessment or a license from the Barbuda Council to clear the forest, said Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of UK-based nonprofit Global Legal Action Network, which is helping attorneys representing the two Barbudans.

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