By Gemma Handy, Antigua Observer
Developers behind the controversial Peace, Love and Happiness (PLH) project in Barbuda have been accused of “greenwashing” regarding a probe they commissioned to assess the impact of the massive scheme on local residents’ human rights.
Swiss consultancy firm Focus Right is said to have interviewed more than 70 Barbudans to gauge their thoughts on the effect the tourism and residential development is having on their culture and environment.
The scheme has been plagued by contention since work began four years ago. While some residents have lauded the hundreds of jobs it has created, others say it is destroying protected wetlands and vital mangroves, and threatening Barbudans’ unique way of life.
The investigation was launched in the wake of a damning report from United Nations experts released in February that expressed deep concerns about potential PLH-linked human rights violations and the welfare of Barbuda’s fragile ecosystems.
PLH’s Project President Justin Wilshaw told Observer yesterday developers were keen to garner an honest evaluation and had chosen Focus Right as it is known for its impartiality.
But the move has invoked a bitter response from some residents who claim it is a “farce”. School principal John Mussington alleged the company had merely been hired to “clean up the public image of PLH”.
“For any kind of impact assessment of situations or activities that affect people to be valid it must be carried out by bodies that are independent and the process must be fully transparent and inclusive at the planning stage,” he said.
“This activity which was organised and paid for by PLH does not meet the threshold for being fair and cannot therefore be considered valid.”
The Barbuda Council also expressed “apprehension”, saying Focus Right had refused to make public key documents, including its terms of reference for the assessment.
A release said the Council did not recognise the probe as a “legitimate endeavour” and thus rejected it.
Yesterday, the non-profit Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) accused PLH of attempting to mislead the public.
GLAN claims Codrington Lagoon National Park – protected under the Ramsar Convention – is “nearing destruction” and it blasted PLH for what it dubbed a “late attempt at greenwashing” the development.
“The impact assessment raises important concerns as it uses a biased approach that is not coordinated with the Barbuda Council nor the people of Barbuda and is based on the premise that PLH has not violated any rights,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday.
GLAN also hit out at the probe’s apparent “limited scope”, noting that it focuses only on the Barbuda Ocean Club and ignores other PLH-related projects such as the construction of an international airport which has also raised the ire of environmentalists.
The group claimed the assessment was a PR exercise aimed at luring wealthy investors.
GLAN has been a vocal supporter of Barbudans who have been battling to retain their traditional practice of communal land ownership.
“PLH and its partner Discovery Land Company – backed by US celebrities John Paul DeJoria and Michael Meldman – have already cleared acres of vital mangroves and bush to make way for hundreds of luxury residences and an 18-hole golf course,” the statement continued.
“The luxury developers essentially destroyed the fragile ecology of the [Palmetto Point] peninsula and cemented their land grabbing efforts prior to allowing the human rights impact assessment.”
GLAN claimed it had obtained recent evidence that “demonstrates the vast extent of ongoing destruction” at the lagoon.
Yesterday, Wilshaw denied developers had removed swathes of mangroves, telling Observer that one sole mangrove plant had been relocated since work began.
“We have also set up a nursery to grow and increase the mangroves on Barbuda,” he said.
But GLAN alleged Barbudans were being short-changed with PLH paying a peppercorn rent for the land it occupies.
“PLH only pays a total of $212,938 annually in rent to lease a Ramsar-protected wetland.
“For the first 80 years this money must be spent on an airport that was constructed without proper approvals and that Barbudan people vigorously oppose,” it said.
GLAN pledged to continue to fight against what it calls the “privatization” of the sister island. The group has also launched an online crowdfunding appeal in a bid to stymie what it maintains is a land grab.
Wilshaw told Observer GLAN had been approached by the Swiss consultants to air their concerns but had declined to comment.
Focus Right – which bills itself as helping clients embed human rights due diligence into their business practices – has been approached for comment.