By Gregory Scruggs
CODRINGTON, Barbuda, Dec 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - T hree months after Hurricane Irma devastated Barbuda, residents are in a state of limbo over plans to shake up the Caribbean island's ancient communal land ownership, a move they fear will destroy their culture and pave the way for property speculation.
On Sept. 6, Barbuda became one of the first victims of Irma, which swept in winds measuring up to 185 miles (298 km) an hour, killing one person and damaging an estimated 90 percent of properties.
All 1,600 inhabitants left under a mandatory evacuation order to seek shelter in neighbouring Antigua as another hurricane barrelled down on Barbuda just days after Irma, though it ultimately veered off course.
A few days after the disaster, Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, a twin-island state, proposed that Barbudans returning home should buy their land for a symbolic price of $1 and receive freehold titles.
The proposal does not sit well with Barbudans who have collectively owned their land since Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1834.
"They want us to get title deed, but we don't want no title deed for what is ours," said Colain Beazer as he waited at the Barbuda ferry dock wearing a T-shirt that read "Barbuda Land Act Matters", a reference to a 2007 law to guarantee Barbudans communal land rights.
"When it comes to the land, we are taking our land because this land was given to our ancestors and we inherited it," he said.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to more than a dozen residents of the island, both those who have returned to their homes and those still sheltering on Antigua, and found near universal opposition.
Nicky Jeffrey, a mother of three, survived the storm with her family by huddling inside the bathroom. Like many Barbudans, she lost the roof of her house to high winds, which wreaked havoc with the house's interior.
She is less resistant to the idea of title but insulted by the suggestion she has to pay for her land.
"If they come and say, here is a title deed for this land, I would take it," she said. "But I'm not going to pay for it. It could be 10 cents. The minute I do that, I'm buying back something that belongs to me."
Antigua operates with freehold tenure, but for nearly two centuries Barbudans have collectively governed the use of land on their island, a system that is unique in the Caribbean.
Many of them fear a freehold system would be a first step for increased foreign investment on Barbuda, a quiet place where residents hunt, fish and farm for a living and that - unlike Antigua - receives no cruise ships and sees few tourists.
Hollywood actor Robert de Niro is planning to build a luxury resort on the island, a project that stirred controversy among Barbudans when the government approved the plan in 2015.
In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the Antiguan capital St. John's, Prime Minister Browne, insisted his plan will "empower" Barbudans.
The new land ownership system, Brown said, would help development and pave the way for Barbudans to get mortgages to rebuild their homes and get insurance to protect them when the next disaster hits.
Historically, Barbudans have constructed their homes incrementally and relied on savings rather than bank financing.
Few if any have insurance following a negative experience after the last major storm, Hurricane Luis in 1995, when a fraudulent provider failed to make good on claims.
Three months after the storm hit Barbuda, the utility company says running water and limited electricity have been restored, although Barbudans communicating with the Thomson Reuters Foundation via WhatsApp disputed this.
Since the storm, the few hundred returned residents have been relying on generators and desalinated water from humanitarian relief organizations.
The lone primary school's classrooms are cluttered with overturned desks and shredded books while they remain open to the sky.
The lack of schooling means families with school-age children continue to shelter in Antigua, 39 miles (63 km) away, which was not damaged by Irma and is home to the bulk of the country's population with some 80,000 residents.
According to a United Nations post-disaster building damage assessment, roughly half of the 1,250 structures on Barbuda require significant repair or complete reconstruction.
The United Nations estimates it will cost $79 million to fix up Barbuda's housing stock and that total recovery expenditure will amount to $223 million, nearly 16 percent of the country's GDP.
Donors promised $1.3 billion in aid and more than $1 billion in loans and debt relief and loans for hurricane-ravaged Caribbean islands at a pledging conference last month.
Browne said donor money would be used to build new homes, but said hurricane victims cannot expect to receive them without cost.
"They must have some skin in the game," he said, expressing concern at setting a "precedent in which we just give away homes."
Financing Barbuda's reconstruction will need a "mortgage component", said Browne. In order to secure a loan, he said some form of title to the land was required.
Liz Alden Wily, a land tenure specialist, disputed that freehold title is an obligatory step before issuing a mortgage.
"There is nothing wrong with their collective title, it just would require some work by the (elected) Barbuda Council to get everyone on board and to organize a schedule of payment of interest and repayment of the loan," she said.
Some residents fear the abolition of communal land ownership on the island may pave the way for the sell-off of lucrative beach-front tracts of land.
"The government is asking Barbudans to surrender collective ownership of the whole island for just a few parcels of land in (the capital) Codrington," said Alden Wily.
Pensioner Clifton Walbrook, whose house was destroyed by Irma, says he does not have savings or insurance, but he is not interested in a mortgage.
"Barbuda land is not for sale," said Walbrook, whose house was destroyed by the storm.
"If you can't repay the bank, they take the damn property away from you in the first place," he said.
Donors have not yet weighed in on the land issue.
The United Nations Development Programme and CARICOM, which organized the pledging conference last month, did not respond to requests for comments, nor did the governments of Canada and Britain, which have both made large financial commitments.
However, Britain's Department for International Development said in a news release last month an additional 3 million pounds ($4 million) would be pending "once the priorities for reconstruction on Barbuda are agreed with the local government."
The World Bank, which pledged $140 million for rebuilding to the Caribbean region, has not commented, while the European Union, which pledged $352 million, called land tenure an "internal matter."
Alden Wily said donor nations must take a stance.
"It would be wrong for donors providing hurricane relief not to lay down very clear conditions that in the case of Barbuda, this is not the time to change the tenure regime," she said.
*Travel for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
(Reporting by Gregory Scruggs. Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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