Barbudans take legal action against Government of Antigua and Barbuda for unlawful development of an international airport

Thursday 2 August 2018

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Legal action seeks injunction to immediately halt development; reveals government continued construction despite knowledge of major ecological, archaeological risks and damage to island

Hearing to take place at 10am AST, 2 August 2018 at Antigua and Barbuda High Court of Justice before Justice Wilkinson.

This case has been reported in the Guardian: Plans for airport on Caribbean island of Barbuda face legal challenge.


A group of Barbudans are seeking judicial review of the Government of Antigua and Barbuda’s decision to construct an international airport on the island. The case to be heard at 10am AST on 2 August 2018 at the High Court of Justice of Antigua and Barbuda, moves for the immediate shut down of the development of the airport on Barbuda.

The Barbudans seek to address failures by their central government to meet critical requirements under the Physical Planning Act 2003 in the development of the airport and failure to follow proper planning procedures where the government has started or permitted construction.

To date, at least 7100 ft spanning west to east of once virgin forest lands in Barbuda have been cleared for the construction of the airport. These lands were traditionally used by Barbudans for grazing, farming and hunting and were the habitat of the rare red footed tortoise and the feeding grounds for the Barbudan Fallow Deer. Rare ancient forest trees, including the white sap tree, have also been cleared.

“As the environmental stewards of their island, Barbudans are meticulous in their protection of their ecologically, historically and archaeologically significant lands. As a result of the Government of Antigua and Barbuda’s complete failure to meet its legal and regulatory obligations, significant damage has already been done to Barbuda this year,” said Leslie Thomas QC, international human rights barrister at Garden Court Chambers in the UK and lead attorney at Justice Chambers in Antigua, who is representing the Barbudans.

The legal action reveals multi-department failure to comply with regulations including failure to complete required environmental impact assessments, incomplete submission of proposed plans, failure to receive Barbuda Council approval of proposed plans, and instances where the government ignored its own reports of risk to the island.

“First and foremost, development of the airport must stop immediately until proper assessments can be made and procedures followed,” said Thomas. “Alongside this we must ask: What are the standards by which we hold ourselves and our governments to account? How does a government get to the point of complete disregard for the laws and processes of good governance for the country? The government must be held to account.”

The applicants are seeking from the Court:

  • Permission to pursue a judicial review against the Development Control Authority (DCA) for failure as the regulatory body to ensure that the planning legislation is complied with for the good of Antigua and Barbuda.
  • A temporary injunction to prevent any further work on the airport until the Antigua and Barbuda Airport Authority and DCA comply with the statutory obligations under planning laws.

The applicants John Mussington and Jacklyn Frank, both Barbudans and residents of Barbuda, have filed the case as representatives of Barbudans who are affected by and opposed to the massive destruction of forests, wildlife and ecosystems associated with the construction of the airport. The following government departments are listed as defendants in the application: Development Control Authority (DCA), the Antigua and Barbuda Airports Authority (ABAA) and The Attorney General of Antigua and Barbuda of the Ministry of Justice & Legal Affairs.

The legal action reveals that the Department of Environment (DoE) warned the government of environmental risks, yet the DCA and ABAA continued with development. Major concerns noted in a December 4, 2017 report from the DoE directed to the DCA’s Chief Town and Country Planner in Antigua assessing the Plan Application for the Barbuda Airstrip (dated November 27, 2018) included:

  • Various breaches of process from construction commencing prior to application, to lack of Barbuda Council endorsement, to significant gaps in the environmental impact assessment (that was requested and developed well after construction had begun);
  • Loss of archeological and prehistoric sites;
  • Hydrogeological issues; and,
  • Construction on designated agriculture space (noted for its rich soils and important for Barbuda livelihoods and agricultural development).

In a letter accompanying the report, the DoE notes an Environmental Impact Assessment dated June 26, 2017 failed to properly assess archaeology, biodiversity and geology aspects and reflects significant gaps in scope and content, including certain necessary studies.

“You cannot simply ignore law and legislation. There are specific parts of the Physical Planning Act (2003), National Sustainable Island Resource Zoning Plan (2012) and Barbuda Land Act that were completely ignored,” applicant John Mussington filed in his affidavit alongside the case. “This work started when the majority of Barbudans were off the island during the state of emergency which was declared following Hurricane Irma which struck Barbuda in September 2017.”

Mussington further observes:

“The DCA must follow the law and enforce a stop order, as it would do if any other citizen was found in breach of the Physical Planning Act. The destruction of pristine forest, wildlife, sensitive ecosystems and livelihoods must stop and remediation measures recommended by the DoE must be implemented.”

Steady and unabated land clearing for the construction of the airport has been observed by locals for the last year despite major delays, including the return of essential services, in the island’s recovery from Category 5+++ Hurricane Irma nine months ago.

The case, expected to be closely followed throughout the Caribbean region and international community, including environmental and human rights communities, could set the stage for similar action across the islands regarding sustainable development planning and ethical government conduct, both critical areas of public interest.

This is the latest in a series of legal actions being taken by Barbudans against the Government of Antigua and Barbuda surrounding the attempt to force changes to the land tenure system and introduce unsustainable and speculative developments on the island of Barbuda.

Leslie Thomas QCMarc Willers QCThalia Maragh and Tihomir Mak of Garden Court Chambers are instructed on this case.

Media Contacts

David de Menezes, Garden Court Chambers

Tammy Bender

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