95 percent of the island of Barbuda was destroyed from category 5 Hurricane Irma in September 2017, and all 1,700 residents were relocated to Antigua. As of January, much of Barbuda has no power or running water, and just 400 residents have moved back. Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, has been criticized by his country’s citizens for failing to provide basic services in the wake of Irma. The prime minister announced on Saturday that the country would be holding its legislative election more than a year early on March 21, but not to secure help for citizens; rather it’s to lock down friendly policies for tourism and development.
“We have an opportunity at this point to consolidate the leadership of this country, to provide investors with predictability, to prove stability, to provide continuity,” Browne said, According to Caribbean television network teleSUR. Browne amended the country’s constitution last month to dissolve communal land ownership among Barbudan citizens descended from African slaves. This revoked the right of citizens to have a say in who develops their land, making it easier for private tourism investors, such as Robert De Niro, to secure property for development.
According to reporting by The Intercept, some citizens feel that the prime minister has promoted a “land grab” for rich investors. Advocacy group “Barbuda Silent No More” posted a letter to Browne on Facebook in January characterized the amendment as “cultural genocide.”
“These people have lost everything they have ever owned in this life, and you see fit to focus your attention on capitalising from the devastation by putting Barbuda up for sale,” the post reads.
Yet in an interview with Vox, Browne insisted that by prioritizing development economic strength, the country can be more resilient to the effects of climate change.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll rebuild Barbuda bigger and better — no matter how long it takes,” Browne told Vox. “Perhaps three years from now, we’ll be having a different conversation; we’ll be looking at a Barbuda that’s climate-resilient, that’s totally green.”
Hurricanes like Irma will continue to happen to countries like Antigua and Barbuda, where tourism accounts for 75% of the GDP. But visitor rates to Antigua fell 26% in the months after the storm, despite recovering quickly from Irma compared to Barbuda. Tourism is simply not a resilient industry, and it’s not clear whether betting a national political system on tourism will pay off, especially as any new development on the islands will stand in the wake of increasingly worse weather driven by climate change.