devastation in Barbuda after Hurricane Irma in September 2017For Barbudans, following the devastation by Hurricane Irma and changed land ownership legislation, the March general election became a referendum on land ownership. [Photo: UNDAC, Silva Lauffer.]

Gaston Browne, the prime minister, easily won the snap early election on 21 March after, in effect, turning the polls into a referendum on the vexed question of land ownership on Barbuda. With 16 seats on Antigua up for grabs and just one on its tiny twin island, Browne had predicted his Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) would win a landslide victory, ‘17-none’. His confidence was not misplaced, with the ABLP having won 14 seats in 2014, when his party ousted the United Progressive Party, and with a poll for Antigua News Room in February finding Browne commanded a 21-percentage point lead over the UPP’s Harold Lovell and Joanne Massiah of the National Democratic Alliance (49%, 26% and 10% respectively). Browne did not get a clean sweep, however: on a turnout of 76%, the ABLP won 15 seats, the UPP won one and Barbuda’s single seat fell to the Barbudan People’s Movement (BPM).

Despite his overwhelming victory, there clearly remains staunch opposition to the prime minister, largely focused on contentious land reforms that became law in January. The Barbuda Land (Amendment) Act 2017 now allows islanders to purchase the freehold to their properties; it is a seemingly innocuous move but the subject of a bitter dispute for several years as it overturns an unusual and much-cherished system of communal land ownership after nearly two centuries.

Hurricane Irma laid waste to Barbuda, destroying 90% of buildings and with damage estimated at $220m. But nothing was insured because residents were denied cover without any title, the government says, forcing it to regularise a land-ownership anomaly that stemmed from the Codrington family bequeathing the land to its former slaves, when they were freed in 1834. However, the government insists only Barbudans can obtain the freehold under the new law and that it is crucial to reconstruction.

Opponents accused the Browne government of ‘disaster capitalism’, claiming it had used the hurricane’s devastation to push through the unpopular change, largely to facilitate the $250m Paradise Found resort development led by the Australian tycoon James Packer and the actor Robert De Niro. The Guardian first reported in 2015 on islanders’ resistance to the exclusive resort, which sits on the prime 1.6 sq km (291-acre) white sand beach of the now-abandoned K Club, once a favourite of Diana, Princess of Wales. For many Barbudans, it was akin to the ruthless exploitation of the island for sand-mining that was the main industry for decades. When the election was announced, Trevor Walker, leader of the BPM, said: ‘The government is rushing to concretise its development plans. The prime minister knows if he gets re-elected he can do what he wants without elections hanging over his head in a year’s time.’

The government went on the front foot to counter what it regarded as ‘left-wing’ media in the former colonial power giving too much prominence to ‘political operatives’ with an axe to grind. In the UK, the high commissioner, Karen-Mae Hill, lodged a formal complaint with the BBC over what she called ‘biased and harmful’ reporting, objecting to ‘false claims’ about the new law and alleging misreporting of the reconstruction efforts and evacuation in September. Yet the publicity battle over the scheme appears to be an uneven fight as the islanders and their supporters vie with De Niro’s Hollywood star power. After Irma struck, the actor spoke at the United Nations, claiming that the resort amounted to vital aid in ‘a humanitarian crisis’.

A source close to the government told the Commonwealth Update that foreign media were pushing the idea that ‘somebody’s doing something bad to Barbudans’ and dismissed the land dispute as simply part of the ‘politics of the Caribbean’ fuelled by ‘antipathy towards Antigua’. If the government wanted to pipe spring water, some Barbudans would oppose it, the source suggested sardonically: ‘Street lights? We don’t want anything from Antigua.’ With a few families dominating the island, the source said, local politics had split: Barbuda’s council was evenly divided and the island’s one MP won by only one vote twice in a row.

Furthermore, the source added, most Barbudans didn’t even live on the island, preferring New York and, rather surprisingly, Leicester. The country, it was implied, was being held to ransom by inhabitants of an island of two square miles (‘and half of it is lagoon’), which could not exist as it was without subsidies from Antigua, such as the US$1.5m a month for just salaries.

When it was suggested that it was self-defeating to give the proposed resort a 25-year tax exemption, the source insisted that such deals were ‘very normal in the Caribbean’, claiming the lost revenue was recouped through local employment in the construction and service sectors. The source admitted, however, that with 70% of GDP on Antigua and Barbuda coming from tourism, the big players in the tourism industry could play regional governments off against each other. And, pointing to the manoeuvring of the hugely powerful Sandals chain run by the Jamaican hotelier Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, the source added: ‘If you think 25 is bad, try 50.’

There is a noticeable sense of irritation at the exceptionalism Barbuda has demanded and fought for, such as the 2007 Land Act defining a Barbudan as anyone born there with a grandparent from the island (meaning Barbudans could own land in Antigua but no Antiguan could own land in Barbuda). How could this be constitutional in a unitary state, asked the source.

The fears of unscrupulous Antiguan carpet-baggers arriving with foreign investors were vastly overblown, the source said, as ownership could not be acquired. The 2017 act ‘protected and enshrined’ the rights of the Barbuda Council over land use, so ‘Barbudans still control who gets title.’ But could it veto a development approved by the government? No, the source admitted, suggesting that nevertheless there was ‘room for lots of manoeuvring within the law’. If so, one wonders whether there is anything to stop local proxies being used by outsiders.

It is easy to understand the frustration of a government obliged to reconstruct part of its territory but barracked by almost secessionist hostility. De Niro’s Paradise Found development, and others likely to follow in its wake, could offer much-needed work to many on the island but will the island lose its ability to shape its own development? For the source, however, the project is about Antigua and Barbuda determining its own future: ‘Paradise Found was approved before the hurricane, after three years of bitter fighting. Robert De Niro didn’t turn up to try and take advantage – and he’s far better than Butch Stewart.’

[This article is a revised version of the article on Barbuda in the Commonwealth Update section of the Round Table Journal.]