The people of Barbuda are currently not only struggling to recover from the devastation that was brought to the island by Hurricane Irma, but they are also fighting to retain the collective ownership of their land. This is a system that has been in place since the abolition of slavery on the island and is currently being threatened by the government of Antigua and Barbuda. Prime Minister Gaston Browne has argued that in order to rebuild Barbuda and to improve the island’s economy it is necessary to change this law. The people of Barbuda are concerned that they will lose the control of their land so that Barbuda can be developed into an island for mass tourism, much as Antigua has been. As I have pointed out previously, some Antiguans have complained that tourism has become such a dominant feature on the island that the island belongs to the tourists more so than the people who lived there. The people of Barbuda fear the same thing will happen to their island as well.
Barbuda’s struggle to retain collective control of the island is a struggle that has been waged throughout the Caribbean islands where the forces of colonialism and neo-colonialism have sought to establish foreign ownership over those lands. Christopher Columbus’ well-known “discovery” of the Caribbean islands in 1492 led to massive genocide on those islands. In many of the Caribbean islands the nation population was completely wiped out due to a combination of violence and disease. Thus the initial process of colonization not only involved theft of native land, but also the complete depopulation of those islands. Those islands were then repopulated mainly by enslaved Africans. After slavery was abolished other ethnic groups, such as East Indians and Chinese, were brought to the Caribbean to labor as indentured servants. Throughout this whole process the land was owned by a small elite group of wealthy white settlers. When the people of Haiti won their independence through a revolution, one of the major provisions that were put in place by the new government was one which sought to ensure that Haitians retained the ownership of their land and property. This was so important for the Haitian Revolutionaries that Jean-Jacques Dessalines decreed that foreigners would not be allowed to own property in Haiti. Dessalines explained: “Never shall a colonist or a European set foot on this territory with the title of master or proprietor. This resolution shall henceforth form the fundamental basis of our Constitution.”
Unfortunately, for many of the Caribbean countries that have gained their independence after Haiti, retaining local control of the land has not been a priority. One of the reasons for this is the Caribbean’s reliance on tourism. On some islands it became a policy to privatize beach land, excluding the locals in the process. The privatization of beach land has been the subject of a number of songs, which have been aimed at exposing and criticizing these policies. In Trinidad and Tobago, Lord Kitchener complained about how the natives in Tobago were arrested for being on their own beaches. In Barbados, the Mighty Gabby composed his hit song “Jack” in response to a policy put forward by Jack Dear, the chairman of the Tourist Board, who suggested allowing hotels to privatize beach land. And in Jamaica, Mutabaruka complained about the all-exclusive hotels which would make tourists believe that Negril is a separate island apart from Jamaica.
The foreign control of land has also been an issue in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was a former Spanish colony which was later taken from the Spanish and brought under American domination. The American colonization of Puerto Rico has been a very brutal and repressive one. Those who dared to speak out against the American colonization of their island were jailed. A very famous example of this was Pedro Albizu Campos who was not only imprisoned, but tortured as well. America has also sought to establish economic domination over Puerto Rico. The Jones Act, with was passed in 1920, was implemented for the purpose of restricting trade to Puerto Rico to ships that are owned by American citizens or corporations. This had the effect of hindering Puerto Rico’s recovery for Hurricane Maria because it limited Puerto Rico’s ability to receive much needed supplies such as food, medicine, and clean water. And like many other islands, Puerto Rico has also faced the issue of privatization of public land.
I mention all of this to show that the struggle of the people of Barbuda to retain the ownership of their land is a struggle that has been waged and is being waged on other Caribbean islands as well, where foreign powers continue to control the economies and the land of those islands to the exclusion of the locals. Barbuda is unique in that its system of collective land ownership ensures that no one on the island is excluded from owning property or land. If history is a good indicator of what may happen to Barbuda if this system is overturned, then the people of Barbuda have every right to voice their concerns over what they see as a “land grab” taking place on their island.