Through 500 years of Columbian colonisation and one of the greatest holocausts in all human history – the enslavement of millions of African people following the genocide of the native peoples of the so-called Americas – the Caribbean has survived and thrived.
If from history’s ugliest endeavours emerge multicultural, multiethnic, sovereign, free nations on these outcrops of rock in the North Atlantic, what then is a mega-cyclone against the sheer force of will and the indomitable human spirit?
This half-a-millennium-old story of resilience and rebirth in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds has been playing anew on Barbuda, Antigua’s sister island. Two years on from Hurricane Irma, this proud island’s population has been slashed in half after the hurricane blew away not only homes, but livelihoods.
Yet, Barbuda is unique in the annals of the Caribbean history. No single individual owns its land. Under the Barbuda Land Act of 2007, Barbudans own the land communally, in trust for their descendants. The genesis of this 12-year-old law’s is during slavery, when Christopher Codrington – he of the eponymous town centre there and theological college here – owned the island plantation.
The surviving family names of Barbuda are as old as any proud descendant of the Mayflower at America’s Plymouth Rock in 1620 – Beazer, Mussington, Jonas, among others.
In the old days, the Warden of Barbuda was sole land manager. Gradually, from colonial days to Independence in 1981, the functions of the Warden were taken over by the Barbuda Council.
This island of 62 square miles has always maintained a tense relationship with big sister Antigua. Most Antiguans have never been to Barbuda, yet are scornful and derisive of a fierce race of sturdy people. Many Antiguan children repeated parents’ prejudices when Barbudan children, fleeing devastation, tried to carry on their schooling on the mainland.
Antiguans have presumed that life on Barbuda was propped up by mainland taxation. But its world-famous pink sand has been exploited by a mining company owned by the country’s second Prime Minister Lester Bird and other figures in the Antigua Labour Party. Barbudans have seen precious little of the millions of dollars Barbuda’s largest industry has extracted.
With the ABLP now in government, many Barbudans fear a land grab under Prime Minister Gaston Browne. Hollywood actor Robert De Niro has been fronting a $20 million tourism investment in Barbuda.
Such development would inevitably erase the healthy mangrove stands and coral reefs which sustain lucrative nurseries for Barbudan fisheries, particularly lobster. The marine ecosystem has also shielded the island from the kind of severe storm surges that decimated similar low-lying islands, as in the northeastern Bahamas.
Last week, journalists of Barbados TODAY witnessed resilience and recovery on Barbuda. There are few remnants of the desolation of September 6, 2017. Many who have lost roofs have not only replaced them with sturdier corrugated sheets but have also reinforced ring beams in concrete.
This island’s primary school has been rebuilt by Barbudans who aver its worthiness even though it has been condemned by a central government. We wonder why.
The miserable experience of Barbudan children who moved to Antigua has taught caregivers and experts alike that a family that experiences adversity together stays together.
Barbudans want only the chance to continue rebuilding their lives. St John’s has argued that changing the land status of Barbuda into freehold property will afford its residents the opportunity to access credit to rebuild, on the presumption that titles to land are collateral.
At no point did the Browne administration, knowing full well its peculiar history and legal status, seek to create a credit scheme as unique as the island itself to guarantee credit to its families.
Barbudans are not fans of handouts. They honour debts. They revel in self-sufficiency. They are proud to claim that which is home. They do not shun honest work.
Indeed, even now, when things are proverbially brown, Barbudans are, in many respects, exemplars of Caribbean people at their best selves. This attempted land grab has been the subject of numerous articles by the international press, including the New York Times, the BBC and the UK Guardian. But it is time that we in the Caribbean Community ask why would a member state seemingly disregard its people’s right to self-determination?
The people of Barbuda have always accepted that while they do not own the land of Barbuda freehold, they should be allowed to rebuild on it and have a say in its development, as prescribed by custom, usage and law.
The government in St John’s must cease to portray this island as some sort of post-hurricane uninhabitable basket case. Indeed, there are still some people who, after two years, live in tents provided by benefactors – next to their unfixed houses. But we also view with deep suspicion plans to rebuild an island in which its inhabitants have little or no say.
We should stand up for Barbuda which has in two years become a model of resilience and recovery. It has much to teach its neighbours and the world from the frontlines of climate change and disaster management.
Our solidarity and friendship with Barbuda should not be equal to that of Grand Bahama and the Abaco islands of the northeastern Bahamas.
For an island to rise up from record 200-plus-per-hour winds and the loss of one life should count for something. So should the right to self-determination and the rule of law.