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Hurricane Irma May Have Destroyed Barbuda's Generations-Old Land System

NOEL KING, HOST:

On the Caribbean island of Barbuda, land cannot be bought or sold. The whole island is shared communally. And it's been that way since the 1800s. But Planet Money's Sarah Gonzalez went there and found that capitalism is creeping in.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Antigua and Barbuda are two islands that make up one country. Antigua is mountainous and touristy with about 98,000 residents. That's where the government is. Barbuda is flat, flat like a penny with just 1,500 residents. It's the kind of island where wild donkeys just walk into your home.

Goats.

ATKINSON BEEZER: Everywhere...

GONZALEZ: And where no one wants lobster anymore.

BEEZER: We have lobster for breakfast. We have it for lunch. We have it for dinner. We have lobster three times a day.

GONZALEZ: That's Atkinson Beezer (ph).

NATALIA JOHN: Beautiful Barbuda (laughter).

GONZALEZ: And this is Natalia John (ph). Everyone calls her...

JOHN: Jegal (ph).

GONZALEZ: Jegal.

JOHN: My nickname.

GONZALEZ: And they both got land for their homes the way everyone else in Barbuda gets it.

JOHN: People just go, cut what they want, clear it and start build.

GONZALEZ: Just take a piece of land and be like, OK, there's my fence. This is my land.

JOHN: That's how we usually do it.

GONZALEZ: For free. No money.

JOHN: For free. No money.

GONZALEZ: Not even taxes?

JOHN: Not even taxes.

GONZALEZ: Even, like, a permit fee? Nothing? Like, really? Zero zero dollars?

JOHN: Zero zero dollars.

GONZALEZ: Free free. No paperwork, no lease, no title.

ALBERT PATTY SIMON: Barbuda has the greatest land deal on Earth.

GONZALEZ: This is Albert Patty Simon (ph).

SIMON: They call me DeGrio (ph). It simply mean a verbal historian.

GONZALEZ: Back in 1685, colonization times, Simon DeGrio says this English guy Christopher Codrington leased the whole island of Barbuda from the King.

SIMON: Oh, yeah. Codrington was a slave master. He had his slaves over there.

GONZALEZ: The entire island was made up of 500 enslaved people at its peak and one white manager and his family. And when slavery was abolished and the white manager finally left, there were no white people on the island, just formerly enslaved people. So they stayed.

SIMON: So the people left alone. You left them there, so they live happy.

GONZALEZ: They held the whole island in common. That's what it's called. And no one ever came in and said, but wait. You need property titles. At some point, Barbudans do start leasing land. There are a few beachfront hotels and resorts. But Barbudans never sold the land. And it stayed this way until 2017, when Hurricane Irma hit.

JOHN: A lot of wind. (Vocalizing). And then you just hear the windows started to burst. The doors (vocalizing), you know?

GONZALEZ: This is Natalia John again. Almost all the buildings on Barbuda were damaged - no roofs, no doors. Barbudans were totally exposed. And they heard another hurricane was coming in three days, the prime minister, who lives in Antigua, orders a mandatory evacuation. And Barbudans are like, wait. Everyone? The entire island?

JOHN: Everybody off of Barbuda? Really?

GONZALEZ: The prime minister, Gaston Browne, says the government doesn't have the money to rebuild. And he focuses on the island's most obvious asset, the land, says he thinks this whole communal land thing is a big misunderstanding.

PRIME MINISTER GASTON BROWNE: The truth is the Barbudans have always carried this myth, perhaps maybe a couple hundred years, that they own the land in Barbuda.

GONZALEZ: You say that Barbudans have been thinking that they own the land and that it is a myth that they own the land. But there is a law that Parliament, the Antiguan and Barbudan government passed that says - I just want to read - the first sentence says, an act to confirm that all land in Barbuda is owned in common by the people of Barbuda.

BROWNE: Right. So it was a dangling piece of legislation.

GONZALEZ: He repeals the law, tells Barbudans, that lot you have been living on for free all these years - new plan. We're going to sell it to you for $1 Eastern Caribbean, about 37 cents U.S. And now you'll have a title. And you can take a title to a bank to get a loan to rebuild your home.

BROWNE: That type of property rights system is quintessential to the advancement of a country.

GONZALEZ: But the rest of the island, which is most of the island - that would now be open to development, foreign investment.

JOHN: It was a trick. That is what I thought.

GONZALEZ: Again, Natalia John.

JOHN: It was just a trick.

GONZALEZ: Barbudans have challenged this plan in court. Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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