Barbudans are resisting disaster capitalists

Ever since Hurricane Irma struck in September 2017, residents of Barbuda have been trying to defend themselves against those who would cash in on their misfortune. Gemma Sou hears what they have to say.

Fifi, with her daughter Mia, bemoans the slow pace of construction. Photos: Tamzin Forster

The Caribbean region is experiencing an increasing number of hurricanes, whipped up by climate change. Memories of Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas in September 2019, are still fresh. But almost forgotten by the world now is Hurricane Irma, which flattened the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda in 2017, followed soon after by Hurricane Maria, which caused major destruction to Puerto Rico.

Like most major disasters around the world, there was a media frenzy shortly after Dorian, Maria and Irma – predominantly focusing on the ‘spectacle’ of physical destruction, human agony, and short-term relief operations. Yet the short attention span of mainstream media means that Caribbean people’s experiences of recovery in the long term are ignored.

There is little recognition of how colonial wealth extraction has left a continuing legacy of vulnerability in terms of the economic resources and physical infrastructure required to withstand hurricanes. Or of how post-disaster contexts are often vulnerable to exploitation by elites looking to reap profits – a process Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’.

Veteran islander Mary Frank in her home. Photos: Tamzin Forster

Take, for instance, Barbuda – the smaller and less ‘developed’ island of the twin state of Antigua and Barbuda – whose 1,600 people live in a single settle­ment, Codrington, while the rest of the 163-square-kilometre area has been left to its natural state of mangroves and scrubland.

It’s been more than two years since Hurricane Irma, yet residents are being subjected to a cripplingly slow disaster-recovery process. ‘Look around,’ Fifi told me, while holding her two-year-old daughter. ‘We still living difficult. The water and electricity is so unreliable. It been too slow and I want people to know things are still bad here.’ Many houses are still damaged and do not have access to a reliable water supply.

The post office and bank in Barbuda remain in a derelict state, with an ATM that only dispenses 100 East Caribbean dollars (US$37) at a time, if it works at all. Visitors cannot access money for tours and accommodation, which is stifling the local economy. ‘If I want my post or to draw money out of the bank so I can buy materials to rebuild my house, I have to spend EC$240 [$89] to go to Antigua and back,’ explains Romeo.

Barbudans accuse the Antiguan side of government of a purposeful and calculatedly inadequate recovery process in order to wear them down so that they will leave the island – an opportunistic politics of attrition, if you like. Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne has accused Barbudans of illegally ‘squatting’ on the land, stating that implementing a freehold land tenure system is the only way to finance Barbuda’s reconstruction.

This would effectively dismantle a co-operative approach to land ownership that dates back to the end of slavery in 1834. Privatization of land would leave the largely untouched island vulnerable to neoliberal measures, in particular, the establishment of high-end and lucrative private tourist resorts by wealthy elites. This is epitomized by controversial plans backed by Browne – and Hollywood star Robert De Niro – to build a large private luxury resort called Paradise Found.1

Barbudans view Browne’s actions and the government’s vision of development for the island as an underhand attempt to profit from their land and undermine their way of life. ‘I don’t think the government is doing the best for my people. They doing what is best for Antigua. They just want a quick fix for development,’ says resident Byron Askie. This has galvanized fierce and sustained collective resistance among Barbudans. Several local Barbudans, including Secretary of the Barbuda Council Paul Nedd, have spearheaded this opposition, using the Barbuda Land Act 2007 to argue that Barbudans legally own land communally.

Entering Codrington. Photos: Tamzin Forster

Disasters are often viewed as opportunities for societies to ‘build back better’. But in post-disaster contexts like Barbuda ‘better’ is a politically loaded term that is often defined according to a neoliberal logic of profit over people. The majority of Barbudans have alternative visions of what better means for the island. ‘We need better health facilities here, like in Antigua. And we need small, effective hotels. Small restaurants and shops that can accommodate our community. Not these huge hotels,’ according to veteran islander Mary Frank.

Others, such as Ida Gift, who has lived on Barbuda for over 70 years, voice fears about their place in grandiose tourism development schemes. ‘We ain’t against the hotels,’ says Ida. ‘But we need new industries where people can learn skills instead of us always being the cleaners of toilets in the hotels.’ Others, including Fifi, suggest a need for amendments to trade regulations to allow Barbuda’s seaport to trade directly with neighbouring islands.

‘I want to see Barbuda push ahead and start to trade directly with St Thomas, Puerto Rico, Montserrat and other islands.’ Direct trade is not currently possible as imports and exports to and from Barbuda must go via Antigua, which means that profits from trade tariffs go to Antigua.

As the Antiguan side of government mounts pressure on people to leave the island, Barbudans continue to fiercely defend their communal land rights despite the difficult living conditions that Irma has left behind. They could do with international solidarity to keep the vulture capitalists at bay.

Barbudan GO is a local-led NGO formed in response to Irma.

Gemma Sou is a lecturer in Disaster Studies at the University of Manchester. She tweets @GemmaSou and blogs at: