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Caribbean people fighting for ownership of their land

Kevin is a fourth generation native of Bequia. His family is a mixture of people of African, Scottish and Carib descent, representing the complex mixture of peoples brought together in a violent fight for the Caribbean region. He speaks about his home with great pride.

Bequia is the second largest island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Nested between the mainland of St. Vincent and the prestigious Mustique, it is popular among cruising yachts and tourists. Local residents say that Bequia doubles in size from January to April, when tourists from around the globe flock to their small island. Many tourists are not only enticed to visit for a few weeks, but decide to buy a piece of Caribbean paradise.

Recently, Kevin called me with a fear in his voice that I had never heard before from this typically laid-back islander. The bank told him that he had 15 days to pay the outstanding mortgage payments or it would put his home up for sale. He had run out of options after a three-year battle with the Bank of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Globalization is bringing foreign ownership of land to the forefront.

Kevin’s story has become a familiar one across the region as islanders are priced out of the property market. The region has developed an unhealthy dependency on tourism. Similar to other regions around the globe which has seen significant increases in tourism, in the Caribbean, increases in tourism has led to property markets opening up to foreigners, with a resulting increase in land prices. In Bequia, there has been a noted increase in demand for land and an appreciation of prices that has made local ownership of property untenable.

Across the Caribbean, retaining local control over land has been a challenge since countries in the region started restoring their independence in the 19th century after colonialism by powers like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. But this longstanding issue has been brought to the forefront as modern-day globalization results in increased flows of people and money across waterways and borders.

While non-resident ownership of residential properties occurs in the West, such as Toronto and Vancouver, in the small island nations of the Caribbean where space is limited, the issue is even more pressing. In Antigua and Barbuda, for example, globalization in the form of climate change has put these sister islands at the centre of a regional debate over land ownership. An increase in the number of hurricanes, in particular the devastating hurricane in 2017, destroyed 95 percent of all property on the smaller island of Barbuda.

Unlike Antigua, Barbuda has had a unique system of collective land ownership or communally-owned land since the abolition of slavery. The system is enshrined in law under the Barbuda Land Act, and ensures that no one on Barbuda is excluded from owning property. However, Prime Minister Browne wants to speed up the rebuilding process in Barbuda, and believes that lifting foreign ownership restrictions will achieve this goal. Barbudans disagree on the importance of this goal. They are fighting back. Click here to listen to an NPR podcast about Barbuda's land issue.

The struggle to retain local control of land is being waged across the Caribbean.

In 2017, Joseph Atherley, Leader of the Opposition in Barbados, proclaimed that “[w]e need to revisit the issue of foreign land ownership in Barbados." Indeed, “coastal lands are now rarely available for sale and where available, they are usually at very high prices”.

This phenomenon can also be seen in St. Lucia. There are three Sandals Resorts on an island of 600 square kilometres, two of which occupy prime beach property. St. Lucians are increasingly voicing their resentment that foreigners are acquiring land not for agricultural purposes, that could benefit the people, but for tourist development that leads to inflated land prices.

The potential to undermine the sovereignty of countries

Land ownership has important implications for sovereignty. It enables people to have a stake in the development of their communities, and in turn, be active and involved citizens. Land ownership allows for the management of the close relationship between land and society.

The reality is that Kevin's property is not likely to be bought by a local Bequian, but by a foreign buyer or investor with access to funds unmatched by the average islander. Similarly, the 2,000 people who call Barbuda home are fighting an uphill battle against their government that sees economic development as more important than communal living.

More than 200 years after the colonized people of the Caribbean won back their independence, these island nations continue to struggle for their sovereignty. Foreign land ownership is resulting in neo-colonial relationships that are continuing patterns of colonialism.

The Caribbean is at an important crossroads. It must find the right balance between economic development and local land ownership that does not impinge on the ability of Kevin, the people of Barbuda, and future generations to own a piece of their homeland.

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