MP Trevor Walker said "We are very disappointed because…we just can’t see where that money has been spent."
As the Caribbean braces for a new hurricane season, the people of Barbuda are calling on the government to account for an estimated US $50 million in relief and reconstruction funds received after Hurricane Irma hit the island in 2017. Several opposition officials and citizens have accused the government of Prime Minister Gaston Browne of using the crisis to sell their land to international property developers, such as actor Robert De Niro.
“We are very disappointed because it is almost seven months after the hurricane and we just can’t see where that money has been spent,” said Trevor Walker, the member of parliament for Barbuda, told Climate Home News. “We are calling on those donors to ask the government to give an account.”
He has accused Browne of wanting to make land available for foreign investment in Barbuda, particularly the Paradise Beachfront development, which is being financed by De Niro. To do so, the government is repealing the 2007 Barbuda Land Act, according to St Kitts and Nevis Observer.
“Those developments are not in our interest. They haven’t even consulted us, and they want to give a lease of 200 years to Robert De Niro,” said Walker. “The communal land ownership that we have been practicing for more than 300 years, for the government to try to change that without consulting us is unacceptable.”
Liza Thomas, who was born in Britain and visits her father's homeland Barbuda regularly, was allowed to meet with Browne, along with other campaigners and activists. “We were grateful that he listened to us,” she said, however, “we were not able to pin him down to any actions." She said Browne repeated past promises to publish details of how the relief funds were spent, without confirming a date.
Browne, who was re-elected as Prime Minister on March 22, has promised legislation that would sell land to private tourism investors to help rebuild Barbuda after Hurricane Irma. However, residents have vowed to take the government to court to preserve the centuries-old practice of communal land ownership.
A year after Britain paid the modern equivalent of US$335 billion in compensation to slaveowners as part of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, the practice was abolished in Antigua and Barbuda, and other British colonies in the Americas. Since then, communal right to land has been the norm for Barbuda. In 2007, the practice was made official, affording collective land ownership to all Barbudans.
The prime minister, however, has contested the concept of public land rights, calling them a "myth": "You will never see anything in the constitution of Antigua and Barbuda speaking to any ownership of any land in common. It does not exist in the constitution, so you cannot pass a law that supersedes the constitution."
Barbuda took a direct hit from Category 5 Hurricane Irma, destroying over 90 percent of building structures. Walker pointed out that while over half of the 1,700 residents evacuated have since returned, running water and electricity have only been restored to about a quarter of households. Also, council buildings and schools have not been rebuilt.