beachfront club in BarbudaBarbuda Ocean Club website

An American billionaire has been accused of trying to destroy Barbudans’ way of life and an internationally important nature reserve with his plans to develop a holiday resort and golf course that local opponents say threaten the tiny island’s protected wetlands.

Codrington lagoon national park (CLNP) is a wetland of global significance, protected under the 1971 Ramsar Convention. The 26km-long site, which includes mangroves, seagrass beds, tidal flats and coral reefs, is home to a wide range of marine life including the endangered hawksbill and leatherback turtles, plus the western hemisphere’s largest colony of frigate birds. The wetlands are also a crucial defence against coastal erosion, such as in 2017 when Hurricane Irma devastated Barbuda, destroying 90% of its buildings and leaving half of the population homeless (see Climactic Change, Commonwealth Update, Sept 2017).

The Barbuda Ocean Club development will sprawl over 300 hectares (760 acres) with ‘miles of beachfront’. It is billed as ‘the Caribbean’s most exclusive beachfront community’. An international airport with a 1,900-metre runway is planned, along with an aviation services firm to handle private jets. In December, the Global Legal Action Network filed a complaint to the Ramsar Secretariat, asking it to send an independent mission to the construction site, which falls within the Palmetto Point and Low Bay areas of the national park, as a matter of urgency and advise on threats to the lagoon. GLAN, which calls the resort project ‘Land grab and wetland destruction’, is also seeking to add Codrington lagoon to the Montreux Record, a register of wetland sites that ensures further protection.

John Paul DeJoria, through his Peace, Love and Happiness development vehicle (PLH), is the main entrepreneur behind the project. His partners are JB Turbidy, whose FireSky Ventures is part of the Christophe Harbour luxury resort on St Kitts, and Steve Adelson’s Discovery Land Company, which helped develop the similar Baker’s Bay resort in the Bahamas. A self-made billionaire whose fortune is put at $2.7bn by Forbes magazine, DeJoria made his money from hair products initially before buying a stake in the Patrón tequila brand in 1989, which he sold on to Bacardi in 2018 in a $5.1bn deal.

DeJoria, a 76-year-old based in Texas, describes himself on Twitter as ‘Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Environmentalist’. He supports several charities, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which named one of its boats after him. However, Forbes gave him its lowest rating of 1 (out of 5), which means donors have given less than 1% of their fortune. Nevertheless, the Barbuda development was initially touted as almost a charitable project, with a 2017 press release published on Business Wire listing disaster-relief initiatives after Hurricane Irma and claiming the resort project was ‘unanimously supported by the people of Barbuda’. A Barbuda Ocean Club website stresses the project’s ecological credentials, renewable energy and water-capture proposals, plans for turtle and fisheries conservation, expectations of about 1,000 jobs from the development, and its healthcare and educational initiatives on the island. In 2018, Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, made DeJoria an ambassador at large for the country. Browne said: ‘In the position of ambassador, John Paul will work to promote the best interests of these unique and beautiful islands.’

However, many Barbudans are fiercely opposed to their roving ambassador’s plans. John Mussington, headteacher of Barbuda’s secondary school and a marine biologist, is one of many islanders who warn that Barbuda’s traditional communal land ownership and the livelihoods of fishermen are threatened by the huge development. ‘It’s being done at the expense of people’s lives,’ he told The Intercept. ‘The philanthropy these persons hide behind, it’s not real. It’s just an excuse so they can continue what they’re doing.’

The Barbuda Council, the island’s local authority, is also opposed, arguing that PLH and Land Discovery are operating through a lease that breaches the 2007 Barbuda Land Act. Its secretary, Paul Nedd, said of DeJoria: ‘It’s alleged that he believes in protecting the environment. But here in Barbuda, he is the head of an organisation that is seemingly causing major destruction to an environment. And not only the environment – major destruction to a people’s life, to an entire community.’ GLAN said: ‘For two years, deforestation and sand mobilisation for the PLH development have severely affected the ecology of CLNP and already irremediably compromised it.’

Abishur Thomas, the development supervisor, told the Guardian that of 42 pupils in his class when he started school, he had been the only one left a few years later. ‘The vast majority had moved away.’ Pointing to the jobs and training offered by PLH, he added: ‘There are some who want Barbuda to be one giant nature reserve. What this project offers us is real empowerment.’ PLH told The Intercept: ‘The PLH project has had no impact on the Codrington lagoon. PLH acknowledge that the Barbuda Council are still in the process of understanding the benefits of foreign investment, while its general population have been quicker to adapt and benefit from engaging with PLH to open new businesses and take advantage of programmes we offer to invest in their homes and future.’

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Browne’s government faced similar accusations of ‘disaster capitalism’ as it facilitated another proposed resort, the $250m Paradise Found development, led by the Hollywood star Robert De Niro (see Paradise Regained?, Commonwealth Update, March 2018). Browne showed his impatience with opposition to developments then; when Mussington challenged plans for the new airport in the courts, the prime minister lashed out on Facebook, saying: ‘These imbeciles have resorted to their ignorantly destructive ways, trying to undermine a much-needed infrastructural project to improve the economic prospects of Barbuda.’

Last August, Antigua and Barbuda’s Development Control Authority said the PLH project had not complied with its environmental plan, citing ‘damage to the historic dune and palmetto vegetation’. In October, a judge temporarily halted PLH construction in part of the island while it considered a Barbuda Council complaint about environmental risks. Barbudans claim drone images show work is continuing, though PLH said this was in an area not covered by the court order.

In an editorial that also refers to the equally contentious Yida development on Antigua, the Antigua Observer criticised Browne’s Antigua Barbuda Labour Party for ‘falling all over itself to give [land] away to the people who once enslaved our ancestors … this ABLP gleefully rubs its hands and declares words to the effect, ‘Open sesame! Just bring your money and come and pee all over the frigate bird sanctuary, Palmetto Point and the North-East Marine Management Area” (see John-Paul DeJoria and Zhang Yida).’

Meanwhile, the government has enthusiastically pledged to be a ‘champion’ of the Blue Charter, which commits Commonwealth member states to promote topics such as marine protected areas. It is unclear how this is compatible with the Barbudan development, though the minister of the blue economy, Dean Jonas, said Antigua and Barbuda was ‘keen to understand more about the potential of our oceans as an economic growth area as well as balance this with protecting and promoting the health of our oceans’. The Antigua and Barbuda high commission was contacted for comment.