Work on Caribbean island airport halted by court ruling

Critics say airport and resort would do more ecological harm to Barbuda than Hurricane Irma

A high court has suspended all construction work on a controversial airport development on the unspoilt Caribbean island of Barbuda that residents say will devastate its fragile ecosystem.

Antigua and Barbuda high court of justice granted an interim injunction to prevent building work on the airport from continuing during a legal challenge against the territory’s government over the international airport development.

The Barbudans who brought the case, John Mussington, a school principal and marine biologist, and Jacklyn Frank, a social worker, welcomed the court’s decision. They are being represented by Leslie Thomas QC, a London-based lawyer at Garden Court chambers, who also represents some of the survivors and bereaved relatives at the Grenfell inquiry.

The injunction was granted after the case was lodged outlining concerns about environmental damage that Mussington and Frank believe the project will cause. Internal documents used by their legal team revealed that the authorities had been warned about ecological as well as archaeological risks.

A full judicial review of the case will be heard on 26 September. Thomas said: “This is the first time the Barbudans are going to get real answers to some of their burning questions on the airport development. It is just a pity it had to be with the threat of the court armed with an interim injunction”.

The islanders complain that the work to bulldoze forests in preparation for the construction work got under way when residents were evacuated from the island during Hurricane Irma.

There are formidable interests hoping to do business on the island if the challenge fails. The Hollywood actor Robert De Niro has a stake in a company, Paradise Found Nobu Resort, that plans to build a large luxury tourist resort there.

Thomas argued that Barbuda’s extraordinary habitat – turquoise sea, white sand and magnificent coral reefs as well as fallow deer, red-footed tortoises and many rare birds – would be at risk of significant damage if the development goes ahead.

Mussington says Barbudans have been careful custodians of the island’s fragile ecosystem for generations. They have made a living from sustainable fishing and export of lobster along with low-key tourism. Until now the island has escaped over-development and has been regarded as the ideal destination for travellers seeking quietness and tranquillity.

Development has been curbed to sustainable levels by rare legislation giving the islanders – descendants of slaves – communal ownership of land. But the law has recently been amended making it easier for speculators to purchase some of this unspoilt territory.

The $250m (£192m) De Niro resort has the backing of the Antigua and Barbuda government, but local organisations have already voiced their anger at the prospective construction.

In the face of that opposition, Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, hit out at “economic terrorists” who he said wanted to “block investment … and keep our people unemployed”. “They would have to face the full extent of the law for any infractions whatsoever,” he added.

Asked by CNN this year about the planned development, De Niro said the goal was to help the island get back up and running after Hurricane Irma. “The most important thing [is putting] the people first and then the hotel. Those things can be done simultaneously, but it’s a big endeavour,” he said.

Irma, a category-five storm, hit the island last September along with many others in the Caribbean, causing enormous damage including to most of its buildings. The repair bill is estimated to be $150m and recovery has been slow.

Barbudans were evacuated to neighbouring Antigua after the hurricane struck. When they started returning, they discovered that earth-clearing work had begun, bulldozing forest in preparation for the building of the airport.

“People on the island were shocked and devastated. They broke down crying when they saw that thousands of feet of pristine forest had been torn apart to make way for the new airstrip,” said Mussington.

Fears over the impact were compounded by the fact that the initial area bulldozed was abandoned after it was discovered that caves lay underneath the proposed airstrip.

The legal challenge cited a review of the airport plan by the country’s Department of Environment dated 4 December 2017, which warned that “many of the negative environmental impacts have already occurred in the absence of an environmental management or mitigation plan”.

It stated that although an environmental impact assessment was conducted, critical aspects of the geology, biodiversity and archaeology were not captured within it. It also said ground-penetrating radar analysis, hydro-geological study and prehistoric site assessments were not carried out. It added that the supporting documents were just two annotated Google Earth photos.

“The work on the Barbuda airstrip was well advanced prior to the DoE having an opportunity for review of the application,” the report stated. “The development work conducted up to this point has not therefore benefited from appropriate environmental guidance. This has resulted in environmental damage which will be difficult to recover from.”

Thomas said: “Significant damage has already been done to Barbuda this year. Development of the airport must stop immediately until proper assessments can be made and procedures followed.”

Mussington said what was happening on Barbuda was being replicated in different places around the world, leading to a rise in CO2 levels and permanent destruction of a climate compatible with human survival.

“We suffered one disaster with Hurricane Irma but that was followed by a worse disaster – disaster capitalism,” he said. “Until now we have been able to sustain our livelihoods on the island without jeopardising the future of our children and grandchildren. But now wealthy individuals are putting that world in danger.”

The government of Antigua and Barbuda has been approached for comment.


Diane Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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