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.

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Airport-linked special economic zones and aerotropolis projects

The aerotropolis was on the agenda at the Tax Justice annual conference held at City, University of London on 5th-6th July – Global Tax Justice at a Crossroads: Southern Leadership and the Challenge of Trump and Brexit organised by the Association for Accountancy & Business Affairs (AABA), City, University of London (CityPERC), and the Tax Justice Network (TJN). GAAM co-founder Rose Bridger presented a paper entitled ‘Airport-linked special economic zones, aerotropolis projects and the race to the bottom’. Aerotropolis planning and development worldwide is closely intertwined with a new generation of special economic zones (SEZs) offering tax breaks and other incentives.

The slides accompanying the conference paper included five GAAM maps showing examples of airport-linked SEZs.

Airport Expansion in Indonesia: tourism, land struggles, economic zones and aerotropolis projects

Indonesia cover mA new report Airport Expansion in Indonesia: tourism, land struggles, economic zones and aerotropolis projects has been published by the Third World Network (TWN) in partnership with GAAM. Airport expansion in Indonesia is closely intertwined with a government drive for massive tourism growth, and the 64-page report looks at 58 airports, operational, under construction and still in the planning stage.

New airports, and expansion of existing airports, frequently entails displacement of communities and loss of farmland and the report documents land rights struggles relating to 25 airport projects. Planners often hone in on forested land as an alternative to the use of agricultural land for airport projects.

Aviation expansion in Indonesia is integrated with other megparojects such as multi-lane highways and sea ports, and linked to new Special Economic Zones (SEZs). These areas are designated for industrial and tourism development, provided with surface transportation networks and other supportive infrastructure and lavished with tax breaks and other incentives. Several SEZs have been bestowed with long stretches of coastline boasting white sand beaches, natural assets that are a cornerstone of tourism.

There are many plans for aerotropolis-style development, including around two airports currently under construction in Java – Kulon Progo and Kertajati – in the face of vigorous and long standing resistance from communities being forced to leave their homes and productive agricultural land. A number of aerotropolis plans are integrated with development of tourist resorts that aspire to become aviation dependent destinations in their own right. The report accompanies GAAM’s digital map which features all the airports that are mentioned, integrating spatial information with text and images.

Since the report went to print plans for a new airport in the Seribu Islands (Thousand Islands) off the coast of Jakarta have been announced. This appears to be a scheme for tourism oriented aerotropolis style development as the Jakarta administration has stated that the winner of the tender will be permitted to build resorts near the airport, and will be provided with incentives.

For paper copies of the report, please contact:  Third World Network, 131 Jalan Macalister, 10400 Penang, Malaysia, Tel: 60-4-2266728/2266159, Fax: 60-4-2264505, Email: twn@twnetwork.org.

Leeds Bradford Airport plans ‘airport village’ on greenbelt land

In northern England, Leeds City Council plans to release 36.2 hectares of land to enable expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport, supporting its goal of doubling passenger numbers to 7.1 million by 2030. The land is currently designated as ‘greenbelt’ – green space surrounding urban areas that is protected from development, in order to ensure than urban dwellers have access to countryside and prevent urban sprawl. Adjacent to the airport terminal, the land in question is currently used for farming. In addition to an increase in terminal capacity to accommodate more passengers the land would be used for commercial development to support the growth of Leeds Bradford Airport – an ‘airport village’ consisting of a hotel, restaurants and shops, an air freight park and an ‘air innovation park’.

On 15th July opponents to Leeds Bradford Airport’s plans to concrete over greenbelt land gathered to protest outside the Leeds City Council Executive Board meeting which discussed the plans for a few minutes. As documented in the minutes of the meeting, attendees emphasized the Council’s continued support for expansion of the airport. The only note of caution was an assurance that consultation with ‘all relevant parties’ would be widespread and thorough.

Leeds Bradford Airport protest
Protest against allocation of greenbelt land for commercial development to support growth of Leeds Bradford Airport, 15th July 2015

The report proposing allocating the 36.2 hectares of greenbelt land to Leeds Bradford Airport had already been discussed at the Development Plan Panel on 26th June 2015. Its a lengthy document – 176 pages long. On page 5, the issue that land at the airport is already allocated for ’employment’ so therefore available for development, with most of it remaining under occupied, is raised. Airport supporters’ response to this point is that the scale of land allocation proposed will make it an attractive location, and it will be supported by promotion and marketing internationally to prospective tenants. Bizarrely, the supposed solution to vacant business space is supposedly to provide even larger space, and the established business space should have received more promotion and marketing support to reduce the risk of it languishing unoccupied.

Leeds_BradfordAirport map s
This map shows the greenbelt land, currently used for farming, that Leeds City Council wishes to release for commercial development to support expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport – the area within the red line

It is not as if there is a shortage of business space in Leeds or Bradford. Both cities have plenty of vacant business premises, already constructed or on land with planning permission for industrial/warehouse development. An industry website lists 157 industrial properties available to rent in Leeds. The largest is a new development, Leeds Distribution Park, adjacent to Junction 47 of the M1 Motorway, with planning permission for industrial/warehouse development up to a maximum single footprint of 750,000 sq ft (17 acres). The website lists 40 industrial properties available to rent in Bradford. The largest is Bronte Business Park, boasting 16 acres of development land allocated for employment use.

Leeds Bradford Airport, and its supporters at Leeds City Council, aims to support commercial development on greenbelt land with more than just promotion and marketing. They are angling for ‘Mini-Enterprise Zone’ status, as stated on the the document submitted to the Development Plan Panel, see page 13. This is already in place elsewhere in England, including at Manchester and Newquay airports. Designation as an ‘Enterprise Zone’ is a subsidy, as tenants are gifted a Business Rate tax exemption of up to £275,000 per eligible business. This tax break is unfair and unwarranted preferential treatment for tenants that are fortunate to be in the Enterprise Zone. In the case of airports, space in the Enterprise Zone is granted to businesses that are aviation dependent, thus maximizing use of the airport’s passenger and/or cargo facilities and facilitating airport growth.

Businesses which do locate in the Enterprise Zone may not even create jobs, as firms will be incentivized to relocate from other premises in order to take advantage of the tax break. The argument that the airport-linked commercial development  will boost the economy for neighbouring communities and the wider region, which the proponents of the project are most insistent about, is flawed. The shops, restaurant and hotel that are planned would result in air passengers spending more of their time, and money, on airport land, instead of stimulating economic activity in Leeds Bradford Airport’s host community.

Another aspect of the rationale for commercial development on green space is to strengthen the case for more ‘surface access’ to Leeds Bradford Airport. This means construction of another road link, a dual carriageway from the A65 in Rawdon to the A658. It would not come cheap and taxpayers would have to foot the bill. It is anticipated that public sector funding will be confirmed for the new link road. The route of this road plan is not revealed. Figure 13 in the report discussed by the Development Plan Panel entitled ‘Indicative Alignment of New LBIA Road Link’ is not actually included in the report, it is ‘TBC’, left blank. Already, Rawdon Greenbelt Action Group is campaigning against the link road; they are concerned that enormous swathes of greenbelt land will be damaged or lost altogether, along with the special landscape character of the area.

Leeds Bradford Airport’s ‘airport city’ plans are a smaller scale version of aerotropolis development that is already underway across the Pennine hills, at Manchester Airport. This is opposed by the Stop Expansion at Manchester Airport campaign group. There is also a Facebook page. Airport-linked business premises is being constructed on land formerly designated as ‘greenbelt’ and, under the guise of alleviating traffic congestion, construction of a link road, costing £290 million in public funds, has commenced. Calling the road a ‘relief road’ does not disguise the fact that it is designed to increase traffic to and from the airport. Most recently, hundreds of residents of High Lane village in Stockport, on the route of the new road, turned up to an exhibition to express their concerns over increased air pollution, noise and vibration from heavy vehicles.

There is strong opposition to aerotropolis development on green space, and associated road infrastructure, at both Leeds Bradford and Manchester airports. Linking up these campaigns will strengthen them.

Andal aerotropolis set for takeoff

A new airport built on a greenfield site in Andal, Bengal is due to start operations this month. It proclaims itself to be ‘India’s first airport-city project’. Partha Ghosh, Managing Director of the develop of the project, Bengal Aerotropolis Pvt Ltd (BAPL) is reported to be ‘bullish’ about the new airport’s prospects for attracting low cost airlines – and this will be helped by tax breaks offered by the West Bengal government. But even with this subsidy the airport does not expect to sufficient earnings from airline parking and landing fees. The article states that ‘the profitability of the project clearly hinges on the city-side development’ and the airport anticipates earning revenue from real estate, from residential, commercial and industrial development on land owned by the airport. Read the full article in the Hindu Businesses Line: Greenfield private airport set for takeoff

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