PLH project has both ‘negative and positive’ impacts on Barbuda, human rights experts say

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Critics say the project puts crucial wetland at risk while others laud the economic injection and jobs it presents (Photos courtesy Caribbean Birding Trail (left) and Barbuda Ocean Club)
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By Gemma Handy
[email protected]
Recommendations emanating from a probe underway to assess the impact of Barbuda’s controversial Peace, Love and Happiness (PLH) project on local residents’ human rights are expected to be finalised by autumn.
But whether or not the findings will be made public remains unclear.
Observer reported last week that Swiss consultancy firm Focus Right had interviewed dozens of Barbudans to gauge their thoughts on the effect the tourism and residential development is having on their culture and environment.
The massive scheme has been plagued by contention since work began four years ago. While some residents have lauded the economic injection and hundreds of jobs created, others say it is destroying protected wetlands and vital mangroves, and threatening Barbudans’ traditional way of life.
The assessment was commissioned by PLH bosses in the wake of a damning report from United Nations (UN) experts released earlier this year that expressed deep concerns about potential PLH-linked human rights violations and the welfare of Barbuda’s fragile ecosystems.
Developers say they are keen to gauge an honest evaluation from an impartial body, but the move stirred up contention among some who claim it is merely a ‘greenwashing’ exercise to clean up PLH’s battered public image.
In an exclusive interview with Observer, Focus Right directors revealed they had mixed feelings about the scheme’s benefits.
“It’s neither black or white. A development like PLH has impacts in both a positive and negative way. That’s my key takeaway; it’s controversial,” Focus Right’s co-founder Matthias Leisinger said.
Leisinger and fellow director and co-founder Sibylle Baumgartner spent around 10 days in the twin island nation speaking to interested parties.
The first few days saw them in talks with various government ministries and officials on the mainland before heading to Barbuda for five days. There they met with residents and members of local groups and organisations, along with PLH representatives and other relevant bodies.
But while dialogue took place informally with Barbuda Council members, the local governing body refused to partake in official discussions.
The Council previously expressed “apprehension” over the exercise, lambasting Focus Right for refusing to disclose its terms of reference. Council members said they did not recognise the probe as a “legitimate endeavour”.
For their part, Focus Right say they were transparent in giving their intention and details of the methodology they use, which follows UN guiding principles and other standard international human rights markers.
They told Observer that keeping terms of reference private is common practice as it forms part of their financial contract with PLH.
Focus Right also requested discussions with the non-profit Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), which has been a vocal campaigner for Barbudans battling to retain their centuries-old practice of communal land ownership.
Last week, GLAN accused PLH of a “late attempt at greenwashing” the development, and claimed the human rights assessment used a “biased” and “limited” approach.
Leisinger and Baumgartner said they answered a number of questions from GLAN but the organisation also ultimately refused further participation.
However, they were able to speak with between 70 and 100 Barbudans, with more talks set to take place over the coming weeks.
“We asked people how they assess the project, what could be done better, what is positive about it, what is negative, and what can be done to improve,” Leisinger explained.
Focus Right bills itself as helping clients embed human rights due diligence into their business practices.
In addition to cultural, land and environmental rights, the focus of the Barbuda probe also considers health and safety and children’s rights, plus the impact on education, economic inclusion and consumer rights, Leisinger said.
Asked how they respond to claims the evaluation is a public relations venture, he replied, “We are confident it’s a robust, credible process.
“Our aim is not to defend our client but to assess the positive and negative impacts on the ground and come up with recommendations which the client may like or not like.”
Interviewees were told from the outset who was financing the initiative, Leisinger said.
Baumgartner continued, “We listened to all sides, did a lot of consultations and acted completely independently.”
The final goal is not to “put a stamp on the project” as being human-rights certified.
“We will outline human rights-related risks and recommend actions on how to mitigate them,” she added.
Barbuda’s tiny size, coupled with its fractured political dynamics, make it a tricky process, Leisinger said.
“For such a small island, there are many different layers – political, generational, economic,” he explained.
The company has undertaken similar assessments across the world, from Kenya to Myanmar.
“The methodology is always the same, but the context is always different; in Barbuda it’s highly complex and political,” he said.
The next step, Leisinger continued, is to consolidate all the interviews.
“We will then write a report which takes some time. The report should be ready by autumn,” he added.
PLH’s Project President Justin Wilshaw told Observer that whether or not the document would be released for public consumption would be a matter for the UN to decide.
“The report will be provided to the UN. What they do with it is at their discretion. I will support their guidance,” he said.
“It’s what the UN requested, so it is for them to assess and ensure it satisfies their requirements.
“Typically the UN publishes all submissions as they have to date with this process. Given we have engaged a top international firm with diverse global experience we are confident the process will result in that outcome,” Wilshaw added.

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