Majority of the Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lower House of Antigua and Barbuda have voted in favor of advancing amendments that will grant Barbudans the right to claim ownership of their lands. The changes will also establish a land registry for the first time in three centuries.
The landmark bill is known as the Registered Land Amendment Bill 2023. The government said these changes are set to address historical land ownership issues and provide a structured and organized land management system for the sister island.
Under the proposed amendment, Barbudans will have the option to purchase the land they occupy at a peppercorn price of $1. Additionally, the government will consider selling up to one acre of land to each Barbudan adult for the same token price.
Melford Nicholas an advocate of the amendments, noted that physical and technical work is complete, now the land must be adjudicated in Barbuda before registration can begin. Deputy Governor General, Sir Clare Roberts has been assigned as the adjudicator for Barbuda once the bill passes the Upper House and is gazetted.
The original Registered Land Act pertained only to Antigua, following a cadastral survey that had been completed back in 1976. But the government has since moved to undergo a separate survey for Barbuda lands which will allow it to be incorporated under the same law.
Barbuda MP Trevor Walker, who has continued to speak out against the government’s approach to land use in Barbuda, insists that the ABLP administration is attempting to impose its will on the people by making these changes.
“I could see if the Barbudans are saying we’re not living well so we need title to our land; we need to go to university so we need to be able to access loans – none of us are saying that but yet still there is this persistent effort to alienate land, to sell land, so they can do as they like with Barbuda land,” he said in parliament.
The government’s decision to grant land ownership rights to Barbudans is reinforced by a ruling from the Privy Council in June 2022. The ruling overturned a centuries-old practice of communal land ownership and established that land in Barbuda is owned by the government. While Barbudans are considered custodians of the land, the ultimate authority rests with the state.
The push for these amendments came in part due to legal challenges brought by Barbudan residents Trevor Walker and MacKenzie Frank. They contested that the development of the Paradise Found Hotel ignored the rights of Barbudans to give consent for major developments on the island.
The government had entered into an agreement with Paradise Found LLC in 2014 to lease land on Barbuda for a multi-million-dollar tourism project, bypassing the communal land ownership dictated by the Barbuda Land Act of 2007.
The Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM) has been at the forefront of advocating for the protection of Barbuda’s lands and resources. Shortly after the bill was passed, members asserted that Barbuda lands are not for sale and expressed concerns that the government’s actions could undermine the powers of the Barbuda Council under the Barbuda Local Government Act.
“This Bill represents another push in the ongoing attempt to bypass the Barbuda Council and restrict the exercise of its powers under the Barbuda Local Government Act,” it read.
The BPM said Barbudans will not allow their lands and resources to be taken and sold off for the benefit of the wealthy, leaving them “disempowered and encircled, as has happened in Antigua and on other islands”.
The bill’s passage through the Upper House and gazetting will be critical steps in finalizing this landmark legislation that marks a new era for land ownership in Barbuda.