Barbudans one step closer to justice in fight for land ownership

The case was heard by the country’s final appellate court yesterday
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By Orville Williams & Elesha George

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[email protected]

The people of Barbuda are set to find out within months if their fight for communal land ownership on Antigua’s sister isle has been successful in the twin island nation’s highest appellate court, the Privy Council.

“I’m happy that the case is finally over and we’re now awaiting the judgement. Before the judgment is given, the two sides are going to make some additional submissions, and – hopefully in short order – we should have a judgement on this matter,” Barbuda MP Trevor Walker told Observer from London yesterday.

Walker raised the issue against the government in local court, alongside founding member of the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM), Mackenzie Frank, and both men journeyed with their legal team to the UK where the matter was heard.

When filing the case originally, the men argued – and maintain – that the Barbuda Land Act of 2007 dictates the right of native Barbudans to ownership of the island’s lands, and any benefits derived from said lands.

That stance was in response to the government’s passage of the Paradise Found Act of 2015, which negates crucial sections of the Barbuda Land Act which refer to ownership.

That latter act came after the government agreed to lease land in Barbuda to the Paradise Found tourism development project, and included a section that ensured the leased land was not covered by the Barbuda Land Act.

The men were successful in Antigua and Barbuda’s High Court, but then the government appealed the judgement in the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal, where it in turn found success.

As a result, Walker and Frank took to the matter to the Privy Council, with the objective of settling the matter once and for all, for the benefit of the people of Barbuda.

The matter was adjourned after the judges heard the arguments of Justin Simon QC – who is representing the Barbudans – and the rebuttal of Senior Counsel Anthony Astaphan, who is representing the Office of the Attorney General.

Simon made the point that Sections 30 and 31 of the Barbuda Land Act state that no lands for development should be leased without the consent of the people, but Astaphan argued that, in order to claim an interest in the land, it has to be established that a person was in possession or occupation of the land; he added that there is no basis for constitutional claim and that the parliament is only bound to the constitution.

Now, the judges may consider whether the land was compulsorily acquired or taken and done so not for public use, whether Barbudans were deprived of any land rights or interest because of the passage of the Paradise Found Act, or whether – by virtue of being Barbudan – the natives have rights or interest over property protected by the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda.

Walker expressed confidence in yesterday’s showing, commending the efforts of his legal team and also many Barbudans who have been supporting the fight for years.

“I’m very confident, but again, the situation is something that all Barbudans will be watching.

“I think that our lawyer, Justin Simon QC, did an excellent job in presenting our case. I think he was strident, confident, and I think he laid out the facts of our case in a very simple way.

“I also want to thank the Barbudan people, generations after generations who have endured over such a long period of time, this present situation,” he said.

Frank also voiced confidence in the outcome of the day’s judgement, noting that there is much to be optimistic about based on the engagement of the Privy Council judges.

“This is the biggest day in our history where land is concerned. We had a very good response from the Privy counsellors; they [posed] a lot of questions to Justin Simon during his presentation [and] this suggests that they’re digging deep to make sure, when they do present the judgement, it is accurate.

“I think [the judges] will give us a good judgement at the end of the day,” Frank said.

Meanwhile, the Barbuda MP also reminded that the case is so crucial to the people of Barbuda that they simply had to seek redress at the highest level.

“This case is extremely important to us because we are challenging the government, specifically the Gaston Browne administration, in their ideology that the lands in Barbuda are not owned in common by the Barbudan people.

“[Also], specifically, that the Crown has unfettered right to do whatever they want to do with lands in Barbuda, without the consent of the Barbudan people and the Barbuda Council.

“We reject that and this case is going to determine whether or not the government can do such things on Barbuda.”

Efforts to reach the Attorney General for a response to yesterday’s developments were unsuccessful up to news time.

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