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A man walks down a street at Codrington on the island of Barbuda, October 7, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – A draft law before the Antigua and Barbuda Senate would deprive Barbudans of communal land where they have lived for generations, Human Rights Watch said today. The Antigua and Barbuda government should consult with the people of Barbuda to determine the impact of repealing communal land ownership on their human rights, and to reach an agreement that fully respects and safeguards those rights.

Since 1834, when the British emancipated their slaves, Barbudans as a community have owned all their island’s land. Barbuda, the smaller of the two biggest islands of Antigua and Barbuda, with a population of approximately 2,000, codified this long-existing communal ownership in 2007 in the Barbuda Land Act. The law states, “All land in Barbuda shall be owned in common by the people of Barbuda,” and, “No land in Barbuda shall be sold.”

“A change in land ownership in Barbuda could harm Barbuda’s most vulnerable people, including women, children, and the elderly,” said Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, researcher on women and land at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to consult with Barbudans before any such drastic change to make sure that their rights are protected.”

Barbudans who oppose the change have for months been battling Prime Minister Gaston Browne, a businessman from Antigua, over communal ownership. Browne wants to repeal the Barbuda Land Act to open the palm-fringed island to foreign investment to ease post-Hurricane Irma recovery. With only one of 19 members of the House of Representatives representing Barbuda, the House passed the repeal bill on May 3, 2018. It is now before the Senate.

If the Senate passes it, Barbudans have retained a law firm to challenge it in court.

Browne has called the Barbuda Land Act unconstitutional – and denigrated Barbudans who defend it to the media as “deracinated Imbeciles, Ignorant [sic] elements.”

Lawmakers had already weakened the Land Act. In 2017, a set of amendments watering down protections related to communal ownership sped through both the House and the Senate. Barbudans who opposed the changes urgently sought the intervention of Antigua and Barbuda’s High Court and lost.

Proponents of those amendments – and this year’s repeal effort – assert that Barbudans do not actually own the land, that collective tenure is not viable, and that individual freehold – in which the individual will have rights only to the land they use and not common areas – is the only route to modernity. These arguments gathered force after Hurricane Irma devastated the island in September 2017. Repeal advocates contend that Barbudans need to own only the land on which their individual homes and businesses sit to get the loans needed to rebuild.

However, there is no evidence that Barbudans have been previously denied such help or would be unable to access necessary recovery financing from the World Bank as a community, in accordance with their communal ownership.

Opponents contend repealing communal ownership is unlawful and that the government should consult Barbudans on any changes to their communal land structure.

“The Barbuda and Antigua government should introduce safeguards to protect in full residents’ rights in the event of a repeal,” Nnoko-Mewanu said. “If the Barbuda Land Act is to disappear, it cannot be arbitrary and needs to happen on Barbudans’ terms, with their rights guaranteed.”

Approximately half the world’s land mass is subject to some sort of communal ownership, and almost a third of the world’s population – some 2.5 billion people – live on such land. Fourteen countries in Africa enshrine community-owned land in their laws, and seven more are debating doing so. China has a million rural cooperatives that hold land in common for the use of the people who live on it.

Globally, investors frequently seek to wrest valuable pieces of community-owned land into private ownership to extract natural resources or develop the land for industry or tourism, although those who once held the land in common usually only get minimal benefits. Weak protections for customary and indigenous lands expose the most vulnerable groups, such as women and children, to human rights violations.

Research from Human Rights Watch in Zambia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Mozambique has consistently shown that taking away land used by communities – without due process and without adequate compensation and rehabilitation – results in serious risks to people’s rights to food, water, housing, health, and education.

“Barbuda may be small, but the rights of its people are as important as anyone else’s,” Nnoko-Mewanu said. “The government shouldn’t shortchange the people it is supposed to serve by snatching their land out from under them.”

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