The leading UN body on human rights has expressed “deep concerns” over a sprawling resort marketed exclusively to the uber-rich being built on Barbuda, a tiny Caribbean island ravaged by recent hurricanes, and one of the last places on Earth to be communally owned.
The Independent has learned that a letter has been sent from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to the central Government of Antigua and Barbuda, asking them to provide more information on the luxury Barbuda Ocean Beach Club development and a nearby international airport.
The involvement of UN “Special Rapporteurs” – independent experts who monitor and publicly report on human rights violations around the world – appears to be a significant international escalation, and places greater scrutiny on the foreign investors’ projects.
Construction has continued to ramp up in the wake of a devastating hurricane which hit the island in 2017, while the local community is still reeling from the disaster and awaits a fully functioning hospital, proper financial services, reliable power and home repairs.
The developments are facing multiple legal complaints which allege dismantlement of Barbudans’ historical legacy and legal rights, and significant harm to fragile ecosystems including internationally important wetlands.
While the OHCHR says it would not “prejudge” allegations, the letter states that “we would like to express our deep concerns regarding the potential impacts of the Barbuda Ocean Club Project on human rights, including the rights to food, water and sanitation, housing, and a healthy environment, as well as cultural rights”.
The UN investigators’ letter, dated 22 June, appeared to have been posted to the OHCHR website in error. It was later removed but prior to that, was stored in an internet archive on 9 July.
The Independent has contacted OHCHR for comment.
While the letter remained private, the Special Rapporteur noted: “We may publicly express our concerns in the near future as, in our view, the information upon which the press release will be based is sufficiently reliable to indicate a matter warranting immediate attention.”
They also urge that “measures be taken to halt the alleged violations and prevent their re-occurrence”.
John Mussington, the high school principal on Barbuda and a marine biologist, told The Independent that he believed involvement of the UN human rights commission was crucial to Barbudans’ survival as a community. He said that since the 2017 hurricane, the local people had struggled to be heard, not just internationally, but on a local level.
He pointed to recent comments by one of the American developers, Mike Meldman, who had boasted that Barbuda would be a more exclusive rival to St Barths as a “blue chip” island.
“It will be like if you made St Barts private and really limited to the people who go there. It will be much more intimate. You won’t have the people that are just there for a few days to drink rosé,” the real estate tycoon told The New York Post earlier this year.
“Our demographic is successful wealthy guys,” he added.
Mr Mussington said: “The whole atmosphere they are painting is one of limited access, which means that Barbudans are not in the picture. We cannot sit back and allow our entire way of life, culture, everything, to be eliminated for a real estate venture.”
He added: “We intend to maintain our way of life and our culture because it’s not reasonable to ask us, as a unique people, to just disappear ourselves.
“We want the world to know that these billionaires, these persons who have the wealth, when you purchase one of these properties, you are actually buying the death of Barbudans as a culture.”
The Independent has made repeated requests for comment from the developers of the Barbuda Ocean Club and the Government of Antigua and Barbuda for comment.
Barbuda is owned collectively by its 1,800 citizens, many the descendants of African slaves brought to the island by the British during the colonial era.
Communal ownership means each Barbudan has rights to a plot of land.
“A cleaner can apply for beachfront property and get it, and so can a doctor. So there’s no great inequality in Barbuda,” one council member explained.
In the past, foreign developers were granted leases and projects required consent of a majority of Barbudans. Unlike on other Caribbean islands, including larger sister island Antigua, where the central government is located, Barbuda has avoided an overdeveloped, privatized oceanfront and flotilla of cruise ships.
But four years ago, Category-5 Hurricane Irma roared across the island, flattening virtually every structure and scattering the small community to evacuation shelters in Antigua and beyond.
As outlined in the UN letter, in the wake of the disaster, the government estimated that the amount needed for Barbuda’s recovery was $222 million. “In the recovery phase, proposals for large-scale projects began to flourish, including the development of an airport and of luxury real estate and tourist structures such as the Barbuda Ocean Beach Club.”
And while Barbudans were displaced from their island, the 2007 Barbuda Land Act, which codified their communal ownership, was quietly changed by the central government. It was declared unconstitutional that the island belong solely to Barbudans, as it had for more than 180 years. The changes also did away with requiring the obligatory consent of the Barbudan people for major development.
The Barbuda Ocean Club appears to have been eased along by these changes.
Behind Barbuda Ocean Club is billionaire John Paul DeJoria, founder of Patron tequila, through his “Peace, Love and Happiness” (PLH) company. Fellow developer is Mike Meldman, of Discovery Land Company, who also started Casamigos tequila with George Clooney and Randy Gerber.
The Barbuda Ocean Club will have 495 residences, including 175 oceanfront properties, along with numerous amenities including a beach club and golf course, on an island which is 14 miles (23km) by 7.5miles (12km).
According to the Post article, the ocean club’s plots are valued upwards of $3m. The cost of a newly-built home? “You name it,” it gushed.
The Barbuda Ocean Club has garnered support from the central government. Prime Minister Gaston Browne, a former banker, has made clear his disdain for Barbuda’s collective land rights, calling it a “glorified welfare system”, that has left the island dependent on wealthier Antigua. He is an ebullient cheerleader and ally for foreign developers.
The developers and central government argue the luxury resort is providing hundreds of jobs for Barbudans.
But as the island’s MP, Trevor Walker, who is also a member of Barbuda’s local elected council, told The Antigua Observer: “You cannot alienate assets of over a billion dollars, which, for example is what PLH has now in terms of land – over 700 acres – and just give the people some jobs and think that we are going to be okay. It’s not okay.”
He called the prime minister’s changes to the Barbuda Land Act “an unforgiveable sin”.
While Barbuda has remained an untouched corner of the Caribbean, it has not been without economic development. For example, The K Club, built in 1990, was a hotel with 45 rooms on 200 acres, and a favorite of Princess Diana.
In 2016, Barbudans voted for the initial conception of the Barbuda Ocean Beach Club but some have since said the local community were duped over its vast environmental and social toll.
Mr Mussington, who has been part of those meetings, told The Independent: “In 2016, what was put before the [Barbuda] council and the people is definitely not the details of what is being done now.”
Mr Walker also said that the original project had no plans for a golf course or a marina: “all they came to ask for was some land in terms of developing a hotel.”
The UN Human Rights investigators also say they are “deeply concerned” about the resort’s location amid the fragile ecosystems at Codrington Lagoon and Palmetto Point.
These are areas of national park and internationally important wetlands under RAMSAR – the only global treaty to focus on the protection of a single ecosystem – which help prevent climate-linked coastal erosion and flooding, enhancing water quality, sequestering carbon and providing habitat to endangered species.
Barbuda is a hotspot of biodiversity and home to the world’s largest breeding and nesting colony of the Magnificent Frigate Bird.
The lagoon’s mangroves and seagrass protect the island during extreme weather, like hurricanes, which are exacerbated by the climate crisis.
“Please explain the rationale for permitting such large and intrusive developments within a national park and internationally designated RAMSAR area, both of which are intended to protect and conserve biological diversity,” the UN asks.
Earlier this year the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), on behalf of the island’s elected council, called for an international investigation into the destruction of a listed habitat after submitting evidence to the Ramsar Secretariat.
The OHCHR human rights investigators have also asked for more details on how construction of Barbuda’s new international airport came about.
It’s alleged that following Irma, stretches of the island’s forest – habitat for indigenous deer and communal farming, grazing and hunting grounds – were destroyed to build airport strips by Bahamas Hot Mix, a company based in the Bahamas.
Such development is supposed to require Environmental Impact Assessments. While two EIAs have been conducted, as the UN letter outlines, “there was no prior consultation with the population and, until today, the environment impact assessments are not publicly available”.
Barbuda currently has no direct commercial flights, so the NY Post article underlined the new airport’s importance for exclusive resorts. ”There will be an airport large enough to accommodate flights from as far away as London – everyone flies private here,” it notes.
The Independent has reached out to Bahamas Hot Mix for comment.
Professor Leslie Thomas QC, an expert in public international law at London’s Garden Court Chambers, was instructed to bring a legal challenge by Barbudans over the airport, which is reportedly being partly funded by developers PLH.
He told The Independent last year that the government of Antigua and Barbuda has not been open and transparent over the project.
A subsequent EIA, which was made public, found that the runway had been built on cavernous limestone.
“Put into plain English, they built the airport runway above caves,” said Prof Thomas. “It means that with incoming or outgoing aircraft, especially a large international plane, the runway could collapse in sinkholes.”
Separately, a case over the communal land rights dispute, brought by Senator Mackenzie Frank and MP Walker, won its application in October to be heard before the Privy Council in London, expected to be some time this summer.
“It’s a really important case because it goes to the heart of whether the repeal of the land act was unconstitutional,” said Prof. Thomas. “If the Privy Council decides [Mr Frank and Mr Walker] are right, a lot of what the government has done may need unpicking. It’s going to be really messy.”
While Mr Mussington said it was important for the UN to investigate what was happening on Barbuda, he also sees defending its ecosystems and traditional ways as a much bigger part of tackling the climate crisis globally.
“We are part of a global system so anything that happens locally, with respect to our national park and Ramsar wetland, will affect migratory birds globally, for example. The Frigate Bird’s one sanctuary is here for the entire Western Hemisphere.
“We have signed onto these conventions – biodiversity, climate, Ramsar. Our administration needs to do the right things and follow the conventions that they have signed on to.
“We felt it was important that we get our views out there. There is a responsibility for the world to understand what is happening is here. Because it will serve our purpose, yes, but also as a part of a global community, we have responsibilities. Our loss is going to be the world’s loss as well.”
He added: “The climate crisis is more a problem of unequal use of resources versus using up things that are not conducive to the sustainability of the planet. We want [people] to know that when you buy into this exclusive residential property on Barbuda, you actually against Planet Earth and living sustainably.”