By Elesha George
The villagers of Old Road are determined to treat land rights in their environs as communal, with some of them saying that the land is their “reparations” as descendants of Africans who were enslaved and brought to the Caribbean.
As having communal rights, the people believe that they should be allowed to own and cultivate the lands within their community without interference from people they describe as “expatriates”.
Last week, farmer and a leader in the community, Jameson “Kublai” Mannix was firm in his belief that although born and raised in Antigua and Barbuda, not even the children of expatriates should be given preference over the local residents.
But how far can land rights go before actions to uphold it becomes unlawful?
In 2001, under the then Lester Bird government, an agreement was signed between the Cabinet and a delegation from Old Road who for almost a month, fought fiercely against the development of Carlisle Bay Hotel.
An article from the Daily Observer dated April, 18, 2001, titled ‘Police Use Force’, described how a policeman drove a bus packed with riot police through a crowd of protestors at Old Road.
According to the article, it was the second time that this had happened since residents began vehemently protesting against the use of several acres of community land for the Carlisle Bay development.
On April, 18, another article read ‘Total Victory For The Old Road People’ and outlined how the prime minister had agreed to meet with a delegation from Old Road to discuss the issue.
Sir Lester had initially refused to meet with the delegation because it included Harold Lovell and Alister Thomas, who were both opposition members.
A day before Sir Lester left for Quebec, Canada and on the 23rd day of protest, he dispatched three Cabinet members – Tourism Minister Molwyn Joseph, Planning Minister Gaston Browne, and Minister of Health, Bernard Percival – to meet with the protestors.
From that meeting and after arrests, tear gas and injuries, an agreement was signed between the Cabinet and the delegation.
It resulted in stipulations, including that there will be no displacement of any of the residents of Old Road and that all farmlands currently under cultivation by farmers of Old Road remain in their possession.
That stance, along with other stipulations, was further issued in a joint communique between Cabinet and a delegation representing the Old Road community.
The agreement brought some peace and eventually stopped the protest.
Fast forward to 2021, and the people Old Road find themselves yet again defending their rights, this time against seven acres of land from being occupied by someone they consider to be an outsider, to plant coconut trees.
They have protested by planning trees in an area where the stated tenants of the land began clearing. This is the second time in about three years that the villagers said they have had to stop the tenants from occupying the land, stating that there should have been an understanding that they simply cannot cultivate there.
The tenants themselves have chosen not to speak with Observer on the matter.
However, last Saturday, one of the ministers who met with the 2001 delegation — the current Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne — described the agreement as a “fabrication”, stating that there is no constitutional legal basis for those claims.
“Ultimately, they have to respect the property rights of those individuals. So, if they eventually get a lease or they have a lease on that property, Kublai can jump high, jump low, he cannot do anything about it because property rights are protected by the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda,” Browne explained, speaking publicly on the matter for the first time.
Browne added that the claim cannot hold, particularly if the lease was given by the Crown, or if the tenants bought the land and was given freehold title. A person who holds a freehold title enjoys free ownership for perpetuity and can use the land for any purposes, however, in accordance with the local regulations.
Section 9 of the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda – PROTECTION FROM DEPRIVATION OF PROPERTY – reads: “No property of any description shall be compulsorily taken possession of, and no interest in or right to or over property of any description shall be compulsorily acquired, except for public use and except in accordance with the provisions of a law applicable to that taking of possession or acquisition and for the payment of fair compensation within a reasonable time”.
Meantime, Senior Extension Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Olawabi Elabanjo has informed Observer that he is in receipt of the 2001 agreement and a petition by Old Road residents which he planned to bring before Cabinet.