Seems a lot has happened in 50 years

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Chapter 243 of the Laws of Antigua & Barbuda is entitled, the Lands of Antigua and Barbuda Sugar Factory Limited and the Antigua and Barbuda Syndicate Estates Limited (Vesting) Act. It is dated December 30, 1969. Clause 2 of the Act states, “It is hereby declared that the lands of the Antigua and Barbuda Sugar Factory Limited and of the Antigua and Barbuda Syndicate Estates Limited specified in the First Schedule to this Act and registered in the manner the mentioned shall vest in the Crown freed and discharged from any mortgage in favour of the Royal Bank of Canada.”
This was a significant bit of legislation in our history as it signified the culmination of many years of hard work and negotiations by Sir Vere Cornwall Bird Sr and the Antigua Trades & Labour Union (AT&LU) versus Alexander Moody-Stuart and the Antigua Syndicate Estates Ltd. This, of course, is the one line summary of a significant portion of Antigua & Barbuda’s history. We do not have the space to get into details but we hope that they are being taught in all schools in our bit of paradise.
The above-mentioned Act came just over two years after the deal was struck to acquire the Syndicate Estates’ landholding and vest them in the Crown. It is for this reason that the acquisition is being highlighted and celebrated in the media. The significance of the Syndicate lands’ acquisition cannot be overstated. It represented a true turning point in our country’s history as the sugar barons relinquished their lands and holdings, and they were vested in the hands of the people. For most, it was symbolic of freedom – a people owning their lands and forging their destiny.
In a press release from the Office of the Prime Minister, celebrating what it refers to as “The 50th Year of the Great Purchase”, the opening paragraph states, “Exactly fifty years ago today, on Friday, April 7, 1967, the Father of the Nation, Sir Vere Cornwall Bird, brought to the Parliament of Antigua and Barbuda the bill to borrow EC$5,631,386.80 from the Royal Bank of Canada to purchase the Antigua Sugar Factor, the Syndicates Estates, their undertakings and assets. That authorising act by the Parliament in 1967 caused 33,000 acres of arable land, beach land, estate houses and the works of the sugar factory, to become the property of the government and people of Antigua and Barbuda.”
As great as the history is and as wonderful as the intentions were, something went awry along the way.  The 33,000 acres of land that were in the hands of the people in 1969 got whittled away over time. Shady land deals, foreign vultures and poor administration have robbed the people of their birthright and one of the country’s most important and valuable resources. So, as we celebrate what happened 50 years ago, we ask the more important question, what happened in the 50 years since?
Today, we are unsure of how much of those lands are still legally Crown land – the people’s land.  Recently, Chairman of the Antigua & Barbuda True Labour Party (ABTLP) Vere Bird III charged that the historical practice of “selling off” huge areas of land to certain families and to developers in Antigua at “peppercorn rates” is now coming back to haunt the Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP). We would venture to say that the policy is coming back to haunt everyone and not just the ABLP.
He claimed, “This country at one point purchased over 85 per cent of the lands comprising Antigua from the sugar syndicate. And now a generation and a half later … it’s unbelievable that all that land has been sold.” He contrasted the land-rich position of the government in the late sixties and seventies to the recent news that the House of Representatives had approved the government getting a loan of EC $6.2 million from the Global Bank of Commerce (GBC) in order to buy approximately 28 acres of land at Hodges Bay and in Thibou’s on which affordable homes are to be built. Ironically, that is almost the same amount paid for all Syndicate lands 50 years ago.
His conclusion: “If you’re going to be buying private land for redistribution, it’s an admission that you have run out of land that can be used to put dwelling homes on.”
Vere Bird III may be a bit off in his percentage calculations but it matters not; his point is valid. And the issue, as he points out, is not a new one. In a 2003 USAID report written by Dr Allan Williams entitled “Country Experience in Land Issues – Antigua & Barbuda”, the writer points out “… Antigua & Barbuda did not make the transition to a tourist-based economy without leaving in its wake serious land use problems. The government is the largest landowner in Antigua, owning about 42 per cent of the land, while 32 per cent is privately owned. The 1985 data was unable to establish the ownership of almost 16,000 acres of land.”
Considering that our total land area is only 68,374 acres, that represents almost 25 per cent of our land being in a state of ownership limbo. Less than 20 years after the great purchase. And, what has happened since them?
We have been begging for a sustainable land use policy for as long as we have been in existence and none has materialised. Maybe one has been developed, but it certainly has not been adequately implemented. With the reduced stock of the people’s land, policies and practices become even more important.
On the 50th Year of the Great Purchase, we are now asking for a full report on the lands that were purchased. How much of it remains in the people’s hands? How have those precious resources been used and distributed over time? If we linked the concept of ‘freedom’ to the ownership of those lands, then we need to know just how much freedom we still have left.

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