Naomi Klein, Alleen Brown — The Intercept Jan 23, 2018
A chorus of voices from the Caribbean island of Barbuda is accusing Robert De Niro of being part of a backroom effort to exploit a devastating hurricane to fundamentally change the island’s communal land ownership law in the interest of developers — changes opposed by many Barbudans, but which could aid the actor’s controversial plans to build a large luxury resort called Paradise Found Nobu.
Earlier this month, with almost no international news coverage and with the majority of Barbudans still displaced from the storm, an amendment to the law in question was quietly pushed through the Senate of Antigua and Barbuda — a body dominated by politicians from the wealthier and more populous island of Antigua. If the amendment stands, a tradition of communal land rights that dates back to the abolition of slavery in 1834 — and which has protected Barbuda as a rare beacon of sustainable development in the Caribbean — will be extinguished.
But as news of the change trickles out, Barbudans are fighting back, challenging the legality of the amendment to the Barbuda Land Act. And they say the island’s highest-profile investor, Robert De Niro, stands to benefit most.
“It’s just a scam to take away the land from the Barbudans so they can give it to people like Robert de Niro,” said Mackenzie Frank, a former senator from the island. “Anyone who has beach land is laughing all the way to the bank.”
De Niro, who has so far stayed silent as the controversy has grown, did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.
Up until the recent changes, land in Barbuda was held in common: It could not be bought or sold, and though developers could lease land for 50 years, their projects needed to win the consent of a majority of Barbudans. It was a rare example of participatory economic planning and successful land redistribution to freed slaves and their descendants.
But the Land Act was resented by foreign investors and wealthy Antiguans, and the latest push to alter the law first reared its head just days after Hurricane Irma roared through Barbuda. The island had been hit by storms before, but never like this: Upwards of 90 percent of the buildings in Barbuda were damaged, and all residents were evacuated to Antigua.