Kulon Progo airport struggle in New Internationalist magazine

Eviction of Kulon Progo villagers from their homes and farmland for New Yogyakarta International Airport and a surrounding ‘aero city’, and the resistance struggle, a key land rights struggle in Indonesia, garnered global publicity in this article for New Internationalist magazine, published in September 2017. NewInt Kulon Progo

 

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Global network against aviation expansion

GAAM is pleased that our work is featured in this video by Reel News about a new global network coordinating action against aviation industry expansion plans, which need to be radically constrained in order to prevent runaway climate change. There is growing resistance everywhere from a coalition of local residents, NGO’s and trade unionists, determined to stop the plans while protecting the futures of the workers who work in the industry.

The video features resistance to aerotropolis projects in India, Sydney in Australia and Jeju Island in South Korea, plus construction of a new airport destroying mangroves on Kulhuduffushi island in The Maldives. GAAM’s research on the the pivotal role of aviation in fossil fuel extraction and processing, such as the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland Australia and Rampal coal plant in Bangladesh, is also included.

It is wonderful to be part of this global network working alongside many other organizations featured in the video: Finance & Trade Watch a small Vienna-based NGO which has done a lot of brilliant work initiating and coordinating ths new global network against aviation expansion. System Change Not Climate Change Austria is at the centre of the campaign against the expansion of Vienna airport. HACAN which brings together people living under Heathrow Airport flightpaths and is heavily involved in the campaign against a third runway. Coordinadora Ote Edomex is a coalition fighting a new mega-airport with six runways and surrounded by commercial and industrial development at Lake Texcoco, just outside Mexico City.  Transport & Environment conducts research and campaigning to expose the real impact of transport on our climate, environment and health. Kuzey Ormanlari Savunmasi (Northern Forest Defence) are taking action in Turkey to protect an important ecological area between the residential areas of Istanbul and the Black Sea coast, including a third Istanbul airport which is destroying a vast area of forest, lakes, farmland and coastline. Global Forest Coalition is an international coalition of NGOs and Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations defending the rights of forest peoples. PCS – the Public and Commercial Services Union – is a British trade union  working on strategies for reducing the environmental impacts of aviation while protecting their members’ terms and conditions. Back on Track supports improved European cross-border passenger train traffic and campaigns to maintain night train services. Biofuelwatch provides information, advocacy and campaigning in relation to the climate, environmental, human rights and public health impacts of large-scale industrial bioenergy. Zone A Défendre is the driving force behind the spectacular resistance against an airport on farmland in Notre Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes in south west France, cancelled in January 2018 after years of struggle, mass demonstrations and occupation of the land.

Let’s talk more about the aviation industry

Flying Less: Reducing Academia's Carbon Footprint

Friends, leaders, environmentalists, we would like to hear you speak more about the aviation industry.

Many influential writers and activists on environmental issues address the fossil fuels industry, but rarely discuss the aviation industry. There are some exceptions, such as Alice Larkin (@AliceClimate), Kevin Anderson (@KevinClimate), and George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot), who frequently address aviation. Many others seldom do. Check the Twitter feeds of your favorite environmentalists. Search for your favorite climate change writer’s Twitter handle plus the words “aviation” or “flying.” Tabulating a sample of tweets for one high-profile climate change thinker this week, I find 45% are about the fossil fuels industry, 10% clean energy, 45% politics or activism, and 0% aviation, automobiles, home heating, or other industries that actually use fossil fuels.

Perhaps the movement finds it easier to talk about energy production than energy consumption. This may be fine for some consumption uses, but not others. At…

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VICTORY ! and an invite to celebrate

Zad for ever

On the 17th of December Frances prime minister went onto live TV, with the minister of interior on his right hand side and that of the environment on his left. He was going to finally announce the government’s decision about the airport of Notre-dames-des-Landes and the fate of Europe’s largest defensive land occupation, the ZAD.  The destructive infrastructure project, on the western edge of France, has been resisted since its inception 50 years ago, and over the last decade it’s 4000 acres of land have been squatted and turned into a giant laboratory of commoning, with over 100 living spaces and several hundred people occupying and working the land.

Notre-Dame-des-Landes-Edouard-Philippe-confirme-l-abandon-du-projet

The airport has been a thorn in the side of every French government that has ever tried to build it. The prime minister Eduard Phillipe spoke for twenty minutes, the cameras whirled and he tried to remain calm as he announced…

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Navi Mumbai Airport – displacement and destruction

3,500 families struggle for fair rehabilitation for displacement to make way for Navi Mumbai International Airport. Mangroves and other bird habitats will be lost and pre-construction blasting work has damaged houses and caused injuries.

Approximately 3,500 families residing in 10 villages face displacement from their homes and land for a new airport in Navi Mumbai, in the Kovar-Panvel area 40 kilometres to the east of Mumbai on India’s west coast. First proposed in 1997 and approved by the government in 2007, the response of affected people, resisting land acquisition and demanding improved rehabilitation assistance, is just one of many factors that stalled the Navi Mumbai International Airport project. The inevitability of environmental damage led to delays in being granted government clearances. Biodiverse wildlife habitats encompassed within the site will be destroyed: 121 hectares of forest, 162 hectares of mangroves and 404 hectares of mudflats. Environmental groups have long criticized the airport site selection, saying that the government refused to consider possible alternatives. Waterlogged and low-lying, the site will need to be raised from 2 metres to 5 metres above sea level, posing construction challenges.

GAAM map of Navi Mumbai International Airport siteA mega-airport is planned, handling 10 million passengers annually upon completion of the first phase, rising to 60 million passengers per year upon commencement of full commercial operations with two parallel runways, which is scheduled for 2030. If this traffic projection proves accurate Navi Mumbai will be India’s busiest airport. The airport core area, allocated for aeronautical activities, is 1,160 hectares of land. In addition to the core airport site, three areas have been earmarked for non-aeronautical activities (airport-linked commercial development such as hotels and retail), taking the total airport area to 2,268 hectares. Three plots of land have been allocated for rehabilitation and resettlement for the affected villagers.

Levelling the site and diverting rivers

Villagers have not yet relocated to the resettlement areas. Yet, in October 2017, as they remain in their homes, massive earthworks preparing the site for construction of the airport began, a work programme that is expected to take between 18 and 24 months.  The course of Ulwe river which runs north-south through the site is to be re-routed by 90° and the Ghadi river running alongside the northern boundary is also being re-channelled. Hills are being blasted away with explosives to make way for the airport runway, the soil and stones being utilized for filling in and levelling the site. The height of Ulwe hill, the largest hill on the site, is being reduced from 90 metres to 10 metres. Vast volumes of loose earth and stones will then have to be compacted down to make it stable enough to withstand airport operations.

Difficult terrain brings serious construction difficulties. The land is swampy and flood-prone, large areas are frequently waterlogged, especially during the monsoon season. “Even from a simple engineering point of view, building an airstrip on reclaimed land, mudflats and mangroves – it is going to be very unstable,” predicted Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust. As of December 2017 most of the site was underwater. Critics of the airport project also point out the high level of state expenditure on pre-construction earthworks that are necessary to make the fragile coastal zone sufficiently resilient to withstand the new airport, an estimated 2,345 crore (US$370 million).

CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation), a city planning agency formed by the Maharashtra state government, is responsible for implementing the airport project. GVK, an Indian conglomerate with interests in energy, resources, transport and other sectors, has been awarded the contract to build and operate the airport. By May 2018, CIDCO expects to hand the project over to GVK for completion of pre-construction groundwork on the airport site before the building phase begins. Predictions of project cost escalation have proved well founded. By 2017 CIDCO’s cost estimate for the project had more than tripled, escalating from US$753 million to US$2.5 billion.

As earthworks In November 2017 two thousand residents of the villages of Targhar, Pargaon, Ulwe, Kolhi, Kopar, Ganesh Puri, Chinchpada, Dungi and Manghar gathered to step up their demands for fair compensation and rehabilitation from CIDCO for vacating their land and homes to make way for the airport project. The villagers discussed many concerns including unnecessary land acquisition and united their struggles to form a new organization: Navi Mumbai International Airport Affected Peoples, which will take up their demands with CIDCO.

The villagers’ meeting followed a major protest by residents of six villages on 12th October, which brought pre-construction work on the airport site to a halt. An article on the mid-day.com news website stated that 5,000 people attended the protest. Only 10 per cent of the affected families had vacated their homes, over 3,200 families were still living on the site and they resolved to remain in their homes until the plots of land allocated for resettlement were developed. On 27th October it was announced that, following a meeting between CIDCO officials and affected residents, attended by 500 people and with a heavy police presence, work on the Navi Mumbai Airport site would resume under heavy police protection. CIDCO reported that four platoons of state reserve police had been made available.

Blasting damages houses, injures workers and villagers

The state is protecting the airport from people with legitimate grievances, but failing to protect people from construction of the airport. Blasting work caused residents to complain about tremors affecting their houses and has caused injuries. At the time of the October 2017 protest explosives were being set off three times per day, loosening the ground in order to cut and level Ulwe hill to make way for the airport runway. Taking place at a distance as little as 100 metres from people’s homes blasting sent stones flying distances of up to 200 metres, including into a nearby school. Vibrations from the blasting had caused cracks in the walls of houses in the village of Ulwe, making some people afraid that their houses might collapse.

On 6th January 2018 five engineers working in the site were injured, two of them severely, by supposedly ‘controlled’ blasting work that was underway 300 metres away from them. Explosions had triggered a landslide and the workers were hit by falling rocks. Villagers in Siddhart Nagar which is situated at the foot of Ulwe hill suffered injuries too; five women were bruised by stones coming through their roofs and a seven-year old boy who had been playing outside his house needed two stitches to his head. Affected residents, who had argued that blasting should not commence until they are rehabilitated, organized a protest march opposing blasting on the airport site and called for an atrocity case to be registered against CIDCO and GVK. Two days after the landslide, as GVK signed the concession agreement with CIDCO, the men of the village stalled work at the blasting site while the women made an unsuccessful attempt to meet with CIDCO officials at their offices. The father of the boy injured in the landslide, said “My wife and a few other women went to meet CIDCO officials, but they were not entertained. Why is it difficult to rehabilitate us when crores are being spent on the project?”

After the blasting injuries CIDCO officials ordered Siddhart Nagar residents to vacate their homes to get them out of the way while blasting work takes place, for two hours every day 1-2pm and 5-6pm. Villagers voiced strong objections to this disruption of their daily lives and being forced to stand in scorching sun. CIDCO’s lame excuse for undertaking the dangerous blasting work with people still in the vicinity is a claim that Siddhart Nagar villagers have not been rehabilitated because more than half of of the households were established after the 2013 cut-off date for eligibility. A representative of the villagers insists this is not the case and that they have documents proving their residency in the area for the past seven to eight years.

Residents’ long struggle for fair rehabilitation

Residents being displaced for Navi Mumbai Airport, facing loss of their homes, communities, land and livelihoods, have sustained a long-term struggle for fair rehabilitation. Back in 2010 a public hearing was boycotted by residents of all 18 affected villages standing to lose their land. Approval of the airport project appeared to be a foregone conclusion; journalist Nidhi Jamwal wrote that the hearing was ‘wrapped up in hour’, with the few journalists that attended having been told by their employers that negative stories would not be published. There was not much to report anyway as a recently completed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a study on the diversion and channeling of rivers were not made public. People from the affected villages stood outside the meeting waving black flags in protest, demanding due compensation.

Villagers being displaced for the airport, referred to as project affected persons (PAPs),  are dissatisfied with the rehabilitation and resettlement areas and say that the offers of land and cash sums to build new houses in these designated areas are in sufficient to compensate for what they will lose. PAPS are being offered construction aid to build their new houses, but say that the amount, calculated in 2011, is low. Their request that construction aid be increased to reflect current costs seems particularly reasonable in the light of CIDCO’s repeated upward revision of airport construction costs.

At the time of the 12th October 2017 protest, which was precipitated by apprehensions over CIDCO’s looming 17th October deadline for villagers to vacate their homes, Nata Pratil, president of the committee of MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) which is demanding justice for the 3,500 families facing displacement, said that the deal offered to villagers to give up their land was altered after they had agreed to it, the allocation of space for a new house being reduced. CIDCO claimed that the plots for displaced families were ready, but PAP representatives disputed this, saying that schools, utilities, streetlights, roads and a crematorium had yet to be developed. And PAPs said nothing had been done to make provision for replacing temples that will be lost to the airport. CIDCO had committed to allocation of plots of land suitable for relocation of ten old temples, along with compensation for rebuilding. In November 2017 some PAPs alleged that records proving their land ownership had been destroyed by CIDCO.

Loss of mangroves and the risk of bird-strikes

A significant regulatory hurdle to building Navi Mumbai airport, pertaining to the mangrove forest in the airport site, was removed in 2009. Coastal Regulation Zone notification, ensuring tight controls over construction, was amended in order to allow conversion of mangrove forest to an airport. Replacing mangroves with the impermeable concrete and tarmac of an airport will disrupt the water balance in the wider region. Mangroves are a natural buffer between land and sea, the interwoven roots preventing coastal erosion, absorbing rainfall and tidal surges. Excess water has to go somewhere and removal of mangroves for the airport could make the surrounding area more susceptible to flooding.

CIDCO’s suggestion of compensatory plantation to make up for loss of mangroves, about 200 kilometres distance from the airport site in Dahuna, met with criticism that these complex, locale-specific ecosystems, richly biodiverse and taking time to evolve, cannot be created instantly. CIDCO then suggested a mangrove sanctuary close to the airport site, commissioning a study of wetland bird habitats that was conducted by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). The study highlighted the conflict between airport operatiosn and birds. Dr. Deepak Apte, director of BNHS cautioned that “A mangrove park within the perimeter of aircraft takeoff and landing zones can be an extremely serious aviation hazard”. Mangroves are an attractive habitat for many bird species, so a mangrove sanctuary poses a risk of bird strikes, collisions with aircraft that can cause fatal accidents.

In 2015 the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change National Board for Wildlife withdrew the requirement for a mangrove sanctuary as part of the project. The developer will be required to make the area designated for the mangrove sanctuary unattractive to birds to reduce the risk of bird strikes. An environmentalist from Vanashakti, an NGO focused on forest, mangrove and wetland protection, questioned the sincerity of CIDCO’s promise of a mangrove sanctuary, wondering if it was known to be unfeasible due to the bird strike risk, and merely a ruse to help get clearance for the project.

Airport operations are likely to impinge upon birds habitats beyond the site – coastline, creeks, mangroves and inland wetlands. A survey conducted BNHS showed an estimated 266 bird species living within a 10 kilometre radius of the airport site, including the Karnala Bird Sanctuary. Aviation experts advised that a plan for a bird sanctuary to protect migratory flamingos, in the Panju-Funde wetlands, 20 kilometres from the airport site, would be under the take-off and landing flight paths and a bird strike disaster waiting to happen. Large birds such as flamingos pose the most significant bird strike risk. Debi Goenka criticized the airport authorities’ opposition to the Panju-Funde bird sanctuary: “In the name of development, we cannot simply kill all the beautiful birds and destroy their wetlands’ habitat. They could have easily shifted the proposed airport to some other place 10 years ago”

Interlinked megaprojects and car dependency

Construction of another megaproject, the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL), the longest bridge in India – is to be speeded up, for completion in time for it to be linked with Navi Mumbai Airport. Stretching across Mumbai Bay, six lanes wide and 22 kilometres in length, the new bridge will link the mainland with Sewri on the eastern edge of South Mumbai. Like the airport, the bridge is set to destroy birdlife habitats. First mooted in the 1970s it met with opposition because of the impact on Sewri mudflats, an area containing mangroves and providing an important feeding ground for the thousands of flamingos flocking there every winter. MTHL’s starting point in Sewri, extending along 5 kilometres of coastline, poses a threat to an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 flamingos and 38 hectares of formerly protected mangroves will be lost, along with 8.8 hectares of protected forest at the Navi-Mumbai end.

The shoreline sections of MTHL will impact on people as well as the environment. A 2016 assessment survey revealed that the homes of 229 families, 53 business premises and 10 commercial structures in Sewri will be demolished to make way for MTHL and an official outlined a plan to resettle then in Bhakti Park, Wadala, in southern Mumbai. Artisanal fisherfolk from nine villages whose livelihoods are impacted by MTHL will receive a one-time compensation fee. As of July 2017 over 3,000 compensation claims had been submitted and the Mumbai Metropolitan Development Authority (MMRDA) was about to begin sifting through the applications to identify ‘genuine claimants’. The cost of the MTHL bridge is comparable to Navi Mumbai International Airport at US$2.6 billion. Since 2005 when bids for the MTHL were first invited the cost has escalated significantly, by 350 per cent, due to delays, rising input costs, mandatory environmental and rehabilitation and design changes. Citizens will foot the bill directly through tolls and indirectly through various taxes.

A 5.8 kilometre coastal road connecting the MTHL bridge with Navi Mumbai International Airport is a megaproject in its own right; large stretches of the road will be elevated with a 1.76 kilometre section over mangroves to be built on stilts. The coastal road is just one of a proliferation of road infrastructure projects enabling traffic growth to support the new airport: new roads, widening of existing roads up to 8 and 10 lanes, loop roads and interchanges. Journalist Sanjay Banerjee envisages these ‘speed corridors’, described by CIDCO as enabling “smooth and seamless vehicular movements”, having an ‘octopus-like grip‘ across Mumbai. The airport-centric road building programme is designing in a high level of dependence on cars, it is based on a projection that 85% of air travellers will use private vehicles.

 

Report – Kulon Progo farmers against airport and aerotropolis

A new report ‘Solidarity Calls for Kulon Progo Farmers against Airport and Airport City‘ about farmers’ resistance against eviction for New Yogyakarta International Airport (NYIA) gives many insights into one of Indonesia’s key land rights struggles. Opposition to the airport dates back to 2011. The site, on the south coast of Java, comprises six villages which, before eviction commenced, hosted 11,501 residents. Farmers worked for many generations to increase the fertility of the land, establishing successful farms and thriving communities. Eviction from farmland means many thousands of agricultural labourers also lose their livelihoods and excavation of coastal areas has destroyed fishing farmers’ ponds.

The megaproject was approved without the requisite Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) even though there are serious ecological concerns, including the destruction of sand dunes which act as a bulwark protecting from coastal erosion and tsunamis and prevention salinization of groundwater. The report includes a map of the tsunami hazard area. Cultural heritage, such as the Glagah Stupa historical Buddhist site and Mount Lanang prayer monument, is also being obliterated.

The report is filled with striking photographs showing the progress of the airport and the resistance: bulldozers at work clearing land for the airport and the devastation that is left behind, evictions and protest actions including roadside banners, marches, blocking bulldozers, a road block and a hunger strike. Infographics show the projected development of NYIA not just as airport infrastructure but as an airport city, the affected areas of construction and inhabitants, and the food crops (approximately 450 tonnes annually per hectare including melons, eggplant and chilies) and livelihoods being displaced by the airport.

The airport project has divided the community. Many citizens have refused to sell their land for the airport, whilst some are willing to sell their land for compensation. Supporters of the airport worked to widen the social, economic and political rifts, facilitating the project. Resistance to land acquisition has met with state intimidation, repression and criminalization. Four farmers were imprisoned for four months. The report contains a chronology of violence against local residents resisting eviction and their supporters. Most recently, beginning on 28th November 2017, as another phase of eviction took place, police blocked road access to a group of residents’ homes, cut off their electricity supply, destroyed plants in their gardens and intimidated them. Police attacked a woman causing bruising on her neck and a number of citizens supporting the residents experienced violence at the hands of police, one person suffered a head injury and another suffered injuries from being dragged along the road.

An ‘airport city’ or aerotropolis – comprising shopping malls, offices, hotels, golf resort, tourism village, leisure town, industrial park and residential areas – is planned around the new airport, increasing the land area to 2,000 hectares and potentially leading to eviction of even more citizens. A new solidarity organization Paguyuban Warga Penolak Penggusuran Kulon Progo (PWPP-KP), has been formed to oppose the airport and airport city, allied with an organization of neighbouring farmers resisting sand mining, and supported by many citizens and environmental groups, including Jogja Darurat Agraria.

Land grab looms in hurricane-wrecked Barbuda, and what is taking shape is not just an airport

Construction of an airport on the island of Barbuda began without residents’ approval. A larger land grab looms; moves are afoot to revoke residents’ collective tenure and allocate land to private investors.

On the night of 6th September Hurricane Irma, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, an unprecedented Category 5, made landfall on the small Caribbean island of Barbuda. 185 miles-per-hour winds wreaked havoc. A two-year old child was killed, land was flooded and shorn of trees, homes were left without roofs and walls or completely flattened and the island’s road, energy and communications infrastructure were destroyed. An estimated 90 per cent of buildings were damaged. Two days later all of Barbuda’s 1,800 residents were forcibly evacuated, ferried to Antigua which only suffered minor damage.

Two and a half months after the catastrophic storm most Barbudan residents remained with relatives and friends or in impromptu shelters such as a cricket stadium in Antigua, or abroad. Only a small number of islanders were allowed to return, for a few hours at a time. Efforts to rebuild houses were piecemeal. People were patching up roofs using plywood and corrugated iron salvaged from the wreckage. Hardly anything had been done to re-establish essential services. Water and electricity supplies had not yet been restored; returned residents relied on generators and desalinated water provided by humanitarian aid organizations. Schools and the hospital remained closed. But bulldozers had been working day and night for weeks, flattening land in preparation for construction of an international airport.

In a Channel 4 report Leslie Thomas QC said development of the airport is unlawful as it had not been approved by the Barbuda Council and consultation with the Barbudan people had not taken place. Work on the airport, which will have serious negative ecological impacts on the coral fringed island renowned for its seabird colonies, had commenced without the requisite Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Already, forest, wildlife habitats and land used for livestock grazing had been destroyed for the runway.

Bulldozing land in preparation for construction of the new airport is evidently so highly prioritized by the government that it began even before Barbuda’s existing small airport had been re-fenced and resumed operations. Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne dismissed residents’ legitimate concerns that the new airport is evidence of a land grab. His text message to Channel 4 in response to coverage of the issue directed a string of insults at citizens: “The deracinated Imbeciles, Ignorant elements, say that by building Barbudans an airport, we are stealing their land. 😂😂😂 These are what we call dunce elements.”

A land grab paving the way for privately-owned resorts

Prime Minister Gaston Browne is exploiting the chaotic after-effects of Hurricane Irma to attempt to erode Barbudans’ land rights. Within days of the disaster he proposed that Barbudans returning to their homes buy freehold title deeds to their land for $1, which could be used as collateral for bank loans to get mortgages to rebuild their homes, claiming that creating an “ownership class” would be “empowering”. Barbudans objected that this would force them to buy land they have owned collectively for nearly two centuries, since 1834, when Britain abolished slavery in its colonies.

Post-Irma disarray is being used to launch the latest in a series of attempts to undermine the 2007 Barbuda Land Act, which confirms that Barbudans share common title to the land and requires their consent for commercial development. The entire island is owned collectively and managed by an elected council. As co-owners citizens have rights to utilize the island’s resources, including for grazing animals, hunting and fishing. Individual citizens, whether resident on the island or not, have the right to a plot of land for a house, to farm and for commercial enterprise. Browne refuses to recognize Barbudan’s communal land rights. He refers to islanders as “squatters” in a New York Times mini-documentary showing how people’s difficulties in retaining shared land rights are compounded by relentless struggles to retain community cohesion and rebuild their own lives.

Barbuda resident and marine biologist John Mussington maintains that the line being put out, that Barbudans do not have the means to rebuild their homes, is a myth that is being perpetuated to justify a land grab. People managed to rebuild after a hurricane in 1995. Under the current land tenure system residents are not burdened with mortgages and high land prices, so they are able to channel their resources directly into rebuilding their homes. Furthermore, there have been generous donations from international aid agencies and there will be a substantial payout from an OECD insurance scheme that Barbuda is a member of.

Collective tenure is not a barrier to recovery

Liz Alden Wily, an independent land tenure specialist, maintains that if the government succeeds in forcing Barbudans to buy title deeds to their land this will result in many citizens losing their property. Without a sufficient and steady income – difficult for people to secure when their lives have been severely disrupted by the hurricane – people may not be able to secure loans or will not be able to afford the repayments, a plight that would force them into distress sale of their plots. She refutes Browne’s insistence that individual, private land ownership is a precondition of post-Irma recovery and the only way for Barbudans to secure bank loans for reconstructing their houses. Collective title is not a barrier to securing a mortgage. Another option would be for the government to follow successful examples of establishing forms of credit, such as a credit union, which would not place people’s homes, often their main or only asset, at risk.

The privatization agenda being pushed by Browne’s government will enable developers to acquire land, in particular lucrative beach-front parcels, at low prices. In marked contrast with many Caribbean islands, including Antigua, where tourism revolves around all-inclusive beach resorts and cruise ship ports, tourism on Barbuda is small-scale. The vast majority of the coastline remains undeveloped, the beaches remain unspoiled. Residents have approved some tourism projects, maintaining a high degree of community ownership and control. Weakening the Barbuda Land Act would enable land purchase by Antiguan and foreign interests, to establish privately owned resorts. Browne admits that the airport will open up Barbuda for investors and is pushing for a cruise ship port on the island as well as an airport, to support tourism growth.

Dispossession and disaster capitalism

A land grab is looming in Barbuda, and it is bigger than the new airport and citizens’ plots of land. Imposition of individual freehold title would result in Barbudans losing their rights to most of the island. Only a minority of the land is designated as housing, farming and commercial plots; the majority of the land is long established as a communal resource which is of particular importance to poorer islanders’ livelihoods. Removal of Barbudans’ rights to this land would convert it to easy pickings for investors. Furthermore, Barbudans without land would no longer have rights to acquire plots, and nor will islanders’ descendants. Alden Wily said “The government is asking Barbudans to surrender collective ownership of the whole island for just a few parcels of land in (the capital) Codrington”. Back in October she had warned that:

“Repeal of the Barbuda Land Act would free up most of the island for allocation to investors. Overall, it is difficult to see this move as other than a classical land grab by the stronger elite, and the end result of which could well turn the island principally into foreign-owned resorts.”

Kendra Beazer, featured in the New York Times film and a member of Barbuda Council and the Barbudan People’s Movement, slammed the government’s opportunistic moves to change land tenure laws, while its people are traumatized, scattered and scrambling to rebuild their lives, as an example of ‘disaster capitalism‘: the exploitation of citizens’ vulnerability in the wake of crises – including extreme weather, war and terrorist attacks – to consolidate state and corporate power in order to drive through neoliberal policies of privatization, austerity and deregulation. Naomi Klein explores the imposition of these so-called ‘free market’ policies over the course of four decades, in the aftermath of catastrophic events including Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, in her book The Shock Doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism, published in 2007. She commented on the post-Irma construction of Barbuda airport on Twitter:

On 12th December, in a brazen attempt to subvert democracy, the first reading of the Barbuda Land (Amendment) Act took place in parliament. The Bill, seeking to repeal and replace the Barbuda Land Act and dismantle the communal tenure system, did not appear on parliament’s agenda until moments before its introduction under an accelerated review process. Leslie Thomas said the act was tabled with no consultation whatsoever. Many Barbudans – returners to the island, the disapora, and their supporters – moved to resist the land grab enabling legislation. A petition against the Act has already garnered over 2,500 signatures and dozens of people joined a picket outside parliament.

An injunction seeking permission for a judicial review of the government’s attempt to expedite amendments to the Barbuda Land Act has been heard by the Antigua and Barbuda High Court of Justice, presented by Leslie Thomas. Broader resistance is gathering momentum with formation of the Barbuda Silent No More movement, working to strengthening Barbudans’ voices as they work to protect communal land rights, determine their own future and conserve Barbuda’s heritage, culture and environment.

But the airport land grab is progressing. John Mussington, who refused to leave the  island after Hurricane Irma struck because he suspected underhand motives for the evacuation, and filmed bulldozing of land for the new airport that was used in the Channel 4 report, now reports that a huge area of land is being cleared and parceled up. The government claims that the land clearance is for an airport, but it is clear that what is taking shape is not just an airport. Water and electricity services have still not been restored, schools and the hospital remain closed. He says the “attack on our land tenure system is unconscionable” and it is clear that “powers that be” want Barbudans out of the way with the intention of a creating a “private island” for the enrichment of real estate speculators.

Regulation to pave the way for a mega-resort

Erosion of Barbudan’s land rights, and imposition of major tourism developments, already looms with government support for a mega-resort called ‘Paradise Found‘. On the site of an abandoned hotel project, islanders had cautiously welcomed proposals for redevelopment, but became concerned when the government approved extension of the 251 acre footprint of the resort by granting a lease for an additional 140 acres. Funded by famous film actor Robert de Niro and Australian billionaire businessman and investor James Packer, the plan for the $250 million luxury beachfront resort features upmarket cottages each with a private pool and a yacht marina, along with an airport.

A referendum approved the Paradise Found project, but only by a narrow majority, and the Barbuda People’s Movement challenged the result as unlawful on the basis that non-Barbudans were permitted to vote. The government pushed through laws to facilitate the resort project. In 2015 the Antigua and Barbuda parliament passed the Paradise Found (Project) Act, the provisions of which specifically support development of the resort, exempting the De Niro-Packer project from time limits on development and granting a 198 year lease along with the right to freehold tenure should this become instantiated in law. The debate on the bill attracted 400 protesters; critics warned that it stripped away the rights of the elected Barbuda Council to consider and approve large-scale property deals on the island. The Paradise Found Act also doled out a cluster of tax breaks for the two business partners; on corporate income, dividends, stamp duty and property.

The future of the Paradise Found project is uncertain, protest and litigation have bogged it down. Barbudans may well succeed in fending off the Barbuda Land (Amendment) Act which threatens to open the gate to a multitude of privately-owned resorts. The drive to revoke collective tenure goes against the grain of a positive global trend. Around the world thousands of communities have secured legal rights to shared land tenure, controlling, regulating and leasing commonly held property as they see fit. In 2018 a global declaration on the rights of the world’s rural communities, making collective ownership and governance a founding right, will be presented to the United Nations Assembly.