Sands of Time Turn Unkind in Tiny Barbuda

Times Staff Writer

This languid tropical island with its miles of powder-white beaches and rare wildlife is verging on devastation from, among other things, the wholesale removal of its fine-grained sand, which is being shipped away by the barge-load for construction projects elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Even if Barbuda doesn’t disappear grain by grain over the horizon, it may be paved over by resort hotel developers or overrun by diseased lions and llamas, according to protesting leaders of the island’s tiny but vocal population. The people are demanding veto power over the pell-mell development.

As a result of political domination by outsiders and growing encroachment on their land--such as the island’s newest unwanted development as a quarantine base for zoo-bound wild animals--Barbuda has become the only freed former slave colony on Earth that wants to scrap independence and return to British colonial rule.


“We’re fighting for our survival,” said Hilbourne Frank, a soft-spoken, 57-year-old former schoolteacher who represents Barbuda in the Parliament of Antigua and Barbuda. The Parliament governs a national union of two neighboring islands forced upon the reluctant Barbudans when Antigua was granted independence from Britain eight years ago.

At times, the fight for survival has been fierce.

On the Thursday before Easter, most of Barbuda’s roughly 1,500 people rallied like a small, unarmed army on the island’s only wharf to prevent the American manager of the new quarantine center from landing a shipload of Chilean llamas. The quarantine enterprise hopes to profit from keeping the animals--and other zoo-bound creatures--on isolated Barbuda long enough to certify them as disease-free before shipping them on to the United States.

Defying a special contingent of Antiguan police, the Barbudans camped out on the wharf until daybreak of Good Friday, when, to triumphant jeers and cheers, the frustrated ship captain retreated with his unwelcome cargo still aboard.

Days later, the 268 llamas were put ashore on a tiny, almost barren, uninhabited island off the east coast of Antigua.

“America has 3 million square miles of land, and it doesn’t let in sick lions and llamas,” complained Freeston Thomas, 38, a local builder and former member of the once-autonomous but now-powerless Barbuda Council. “We have only 62 square miles. Do you think we need those animals here?”

‘Worse Than South Africa’

“What they’re doing to us is an outrage, worse than South Africa,” the island’s 74-year-old resident philosopher, McChesney George, said, leaning across the counter of his general store.

“When I was a child no one interfered with us,” he continued. “Antiguans had to have special permits to come here, and no Antiguan government could make laws affecting Barbuda. We didn’t need a union with Antigua. We were already free. But since independence, everything Antigua has done has taken our rights away from us.”

Barbuda’s deep-seated hostility toward Antigua, a fast-growing tourist country where the English-style Parliament and government are dominated by the rich, development-minded family of Prime Minister Vere C. Bird, dates back three centuries to the days of slavery. Relatively fertile Antigua was then a British colony. Scrubby, arid Barbuda, 26 miles to the north, was a private estate, leased from the Crown by an Antiguan English family named Codrington.

Different Paths

Because of the sharp physical differences between the islands, the slaves on Antigua and Barbuda took different paths of development from the start. Antiguans became field workers on the 108-square-mile island’s fertile plantations. Barbudans became fishermen, woodworkers, weavers and boat-builders because their scrubby land could support only garden plots and grazing.

According to historians, the Barbudans also developed a far greater degree of independence, asserting their right to roam the island at will and use freely what they still consider its communal land. In return, according to island story-tellers, the English leaseholders used Barbuda as a selective “breeding” colony for slaves.

“Basically, it was a stud farm breeding the tallest people in the world,” said Thomas, who acknowledged he was speaking from island lore, not from documented history, which is cloudy on the question. “People here used to start at 6 feet 2 and go up from there.”

As Britain’s colonial empire began to break up after World War II, the first step toward decolonization cast the island as an Antiguan dependency with no direct rights of its own. The sturdy independence of the Barbudans flared into open revolt against Antigua. The Barbudans protested, demanding to be made a ward of the Crown. Britain refused.

In 1981, when Britain lumped Antigua and Barbuda together as a single, fully independent Commonwealth nation, the Barbudans sought to secede, either to make their own way as the tiniest micro-state in the Western Hemisphere or to snuggle back under the protective wing of Whitehall, which again refused.

Some of the island’s leaders even appealed for adoption by the United States or Canada.

“Tell the Americans to send us about 5,000 troops to help us out,” resident philosopher George said with a smile.

“We are living in fear that the Antigua government at any moment will tread all over our rights,” said Frank, whose election to Parliament this year broke the uninterrupted incumbency of wealthy, pro-Antigua businessman Eric Burton. “We’d rather secede in order to live in peace than have them walk all over us.”

Frank and the 11-member Barbuda Council, represented by a London lawyer, have sued the government to establish both their historic communal rights to the land and their rights to control the mining of Barbuda’s especially fine construction sand, which is highly prized by builders as concrete mix. The lawsuits would also establish the council’s right to veto unwanted land use such as the animal quarantine center and future resort projects.

The sand mine--actually an ever-widening open pit literally a stone’s throw from a beach as flawless as Robinson Crusoe’s--is the council’s main concern because it not only represents an ecological disaster in the making but is robbing the island of one of its few financial resources.

“We are being ripped off on the sand,” said an indignant Frank. “We’re getting about $2,000 a barge-load, and the owners of the operation are selling it in Guadaloupe for $28,000 a barge-load. They get even more on some of the other islands.”

George complained: “We asked the (Antiguan) government to make them stop shipping our sand, but Prime Minister Bird intervened and let them keep shipping it.”

Bird’s son, Deputy Prime Minister Lester Bird, was until recently one of the owners of the sand-mining company, along with two other Antiguan Cabinet ministers and an American manager, Dave Strickland, who also runs the so-far empty quarantine station. In a recent interview, the younger Bird, who also has been accused of planning to exploit Barbuda as a toxic dump, dismissed the Barbudans’ complaints.

“The whole question comes from certain people at the top forming suspicions that the Antigua government wants to take away their lands,” he said, ignoring the reality of Barbudan land literally leaving the island by the barge-load.

Two Other Incidents

The Antiguan prime minister fueled Barbudan hostility at least twice previously when he boosted two other private attempts to take over major chunks of the island. One was by fugitive American financier Robert Vesco, who dropped the effort and fled Antigua when his scheme was publicized in 1982. The other, during the same time period but unrelated to Vesco, was an unsuccessful attempt by an international group called the Sovereign Order of New Aragon to set up on Barbuda with sovereign territorial status.

Bird’s involvement with the sand mine has been even more abrasive, according to the Barbudans. Aside from the loss of revenue, Frank said, the sand pit is an environmental threat because it is situated on top of the island’s best freshwater aquifer.

“They’ve been digging down to water level for five years,” he said. “If they keep going that deep, the water will be polluted by a lower layer of saline water.”

The sand pit also has obliterated a wide area of scrubby vegetation favored by the island’s wild pigs and deer, as well as a sisal farm that Frank said was one of Barbuda’s chief economic resources. Sisal is used for rugs and a number of hand-woven products the islanders make.

Not far away is a burgeoning beachfront hotel construction project called the K-Club, owned by Italian businessman Aldo Pinto and his dress-designer wife, Mariuccia (Krizia) Mandelli. When finished this fall, it will become one of the Caribbean’s richest resorts, with daily rates for two persons scheduled to be as high as $1,500. The only other substantial hotel on the island is the remotely situated, 20-year-old Coco Point Lodge, a quiet luxury resort with its own airstrip almost adjoining the K-Club property.

Although the sprawling new hotel’s dozens of luxury villas have gone up without their explicit approval, most Barbudans accept the new Italian project as beneficial. Like Coco Point, the new hotel will provide some local employment, even though it will import outsiders for skilled jobs. But the Barbudans want the right to control future resort development and to prevent it altogether when construction threatens the island’s delicate ecological balance or when imported workers threaten to outnumber natives.

Their worst fears may already be close to nightmare proportions, said Frank, as the result of an ambitious proposal by a group of speculators including the Florida treasure hunter, Mel Fisher.

According to a recent article in the New Yorker magazine, the Fisher group, apparently dealing through the Birds, has acquired a 99-year-lease on 654 acres north of Codrington. The magazine said the plans include a 400-unit condo-hotel and another “luxury hotel” that will include “a cosmetology center, a hyperbaric treatment center, a biomedical clinic and a longevity center,” as well as a golf course, an underwater restaurant-observatory and excursions to salvageable shipwrecks on the Barbuda reefs.

Aside from the simple threats of bigness and environmental damage above and below the water, the Fisher development will almost surround a rare bird rookery. The sanctuary is a mangrove-surrounded lagoon where hundreds of giant frigate birds nest every winter, so gentle and unaccustomed to predators that bird lovers can approach within a few feet of them. Only the frigate bird rookery on the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador is as accessible.

“Their only threat is too much development,” said Karlin Koepcke, one of two young American women monitoring the nests of the 2,500 breeding frigate-bird couples under a grant from the National Geographic. “So far, they’re still OK, but a hotel out there could ruin it.”

“Secession looks like our best way out,” said Henry Hopkins, 69, who manages Codrington’s small, macadam-strip airport and wants to see more development if it is carefully placed and controlled by Barbudans. “We need the development to lure back some of our young people who have moved away because there isn’t enough for them to do here.”

About twice as many Barbudans live in New York as in Barbuda, Frank said.

But perhaps mindful that he is outnumbered by Antiguans 16 to 1 in the 17-seat Parliament, Frank’s once-strident stand for secession has softened compared to that of Hopkins and other island elders.

“We’ll be starting from scratch now (in Parliament) trying to find out what is the attitude of the Antigua government towards Barbuda,” he said. “I’m not pressing to secede at this moment. I’m pressing to establish our political relationship to Antigua and to establish the fact that we have the right to secede if we want to.”

George, who said he does not believe Frank will win a clarification of Barbudan rights from the Antiguan Parliament, said with a sigh:

“They take the sand and give us what they like. Barbuda doesn’t belong to us now.”