One of the world's best waves is under threat. Help save it from unnecessary development.
“We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children”
Picture, if you will, emerging from dense bush to find a palm-fringed beach stretching as far as the eye can see, sand comprised of white coral and minute pink shells shining bright in the high equatorial sun. Beyond that, brushstrokes of aquamarine, kingfisher blue and ultramarine Caribbean Sea. These colours are reflected in the scattered puffy clouds, turning the underside of each a green-blue. Save for a flock of plovers foraging at the water’s edge and the odd tern and frigate bird overhead, the beach is deserted.
The sea gathers itself: a head and a half to double overhead set stacking, forming top-to-bottom grinding right-handers, starting far to your right, running past and finally extinguishing in a puff of spit somewhere in the distance to one’s left. The stuff of dreams and far-fetched scribbles on school textbooks.
On most swells the wave resembles a shifting wedge running down the bank in sections, a really fun wave by anyone’s standards, but when you get a proper chart and the sand is right, it turns into a flawless pointbreak capable of producing barrels in excess of 20 seconds – I know as I once watched Alex Botelho in one that we estimate at around 24 seconds.
The wave breaks off Palmetto Point, in a marine sanctuary, in front of a national park/nature reserve on the island of Barbuda, the most north eastern of the Caribbean chain and lesser-known sister island to Antigua. There are no Barbudan-born surfers and the friendly population of roughly 1800 is centred around Codrington, the island’s capital.
Over the years a handful of surfers from the other Caribbean islands, the US east coast and one or two other countries have surfed this phenomenal wave, pictures have been taken, films made, articles written, but as is surfing code, the location has never been disclosed.
You might now be asking why a wave of such quality has flown under the radar so long? Why the flora and fauna on the island have remained so healthy? Why the landscape is so virgin, whilst neighbouring islands have seen rampant development and large surf communities?
The answer has its origins in the 1800s. The Codringtons, after whom the island’s capital was named, made a fortune from major sugar plantations in Antigua, worked by slaves that largely came from their land in Barbuda. However, not long after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the Codringtons handed the island over to their slaves and communal land ownership ensued.
This shared ownership was formally recognised by the 2007 Barbuda Land Act which stated that “Any citizen over 18 years old has the right to occupy residential land, graze animals and use land for commercial purposes, as long as projects are not considered major developments. Major developments, in this act, are defined as anything that costs over $5.4 million and will affect the island in a major way, through the economy, infrastructure or environment. The act also gives citizens the ability to voice their support or discontent for development on the island. The majority of citizens must support a major development project in order for a land lease to be granted.”
The locals have fought hard to preserve the natural beauty of Barbuda and had a major win in 2005 when the ecologically significant Codrington Lagoon area was designated a RAMSAR protected site - essentially a wetland National Park. It covers some 3,600 ha of the north and west of the island and according to a RAMSAR report in 2006 is:
"A relatively well-flushed and healthy ecosystem, comprising mangroves, seagrass beds, algal mats, tidal and mud flats, beaches and coral reefs, supporting a diversity of marine species such as juvenile lobster, reef fish, sea turtles (including endangered Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles), and marine mammals, as well as nesting sea birds. The site includes the entire western and northwestern section of Barbuda near Codrington, the only town on the island. The lagoon is one of the island's greatest economic assets as it supports a thriving lobster fishery and an expanding tourism market that is largely centred on the nesting colony of frigate birds. Sea level rise and salt water intrusion of aquifers are foreseen as potential threats to the ecological character.”
Sadly, a few weeks ago, I learnt that the island’s land ownership structure, the delicate ecosystems and by extension this hitherto secret surf spot are under threat from far reaching and potentially devastating development. The renowned non-profit organisation The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) has taken up the islander’s case.
“In September 2017, the Category 5 Hurricane Irma damaged approximately 90% of the island of Barbuda, in the Caribbean State of Antigua and Barbuda. This was followed by a series of political and legislative shocks aimed at reducing the authority of the people of Barbuda over the island and accelerating the privatization of large tracts of land in favour of foreign investors. This in turn is having significant negative implications for the environmental and social resilience of the island and its inhabitants.”
“In other words, a climate crisis fuelled weather event has prompted a series of actions which will both contribute to and make Barbuda more vulnerable to the climate crisis.”
“One of the latest acts of privatization is the 2017 lease that the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has concluded with PLH Barbuda, a local company owned by a US-based partnership called Peace Love and Happiness (PLH). Since 2018, PLH Barbuda and Discovery Land Company, a US-based real estate developer and operator, have been preparing the site to build an exclusive resort with 450 luxury residences on private plots and a golf course, called "Barbuda Ocean Club". The site falls within the Palmetto Point and Low Bay areas of Codrington Lagoon National Park (“CLNP”). PLH Barbuda and Discovery Land Company have operated on the island through a lease that the Barbuda Council considers in breach of the Barbuda Land Act, 2007. This legislation codified the island’s unique collective tenure system established after the abolition of slavery. For two years, deforestation and sand mobilization for the PLH development have severely affected the ecology of CLNP and already irremediably compromised it. The wetland is also a Category II Protected Area under the International Union for Conservation of Nature and a designated Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention (Ramsar site no. 1488, since 2005).”
“Despite court orders to halt construction on 1 October 2020, locals have witnessed ongoing operations. On 18 October 2020, two members of Barbuda Council were arrested while attempting to inspect the controversial concession as permitted by the laws applicable in Barbuda.”
“The project is connected to several other land and environmental controversies, from Robert De Niro's Paradise Found concession in 2015 to the future construction of a new dock and a regasification station to store natural gas (likely from fracking) extracted in the USA for the private use of the Barbuda Ocean Club. Another linked controversy which emerged in 2017 when the islanders were evacuated to avoid another approaching hurricane after Irma concerns the construction of an international airport. Upon returning to the island, Barbudans observed that government authorities began to clear-cut a large strip of forest for an international airport in breach of national and international environmental regulations. According to the land concession granted to PLH (Barbuda), this airport was positioned to service PLH’s proposed exclusive residential community. Soon after GLAN launched an ongoing crowdfund in a bid to support legal efforts to resist this and other land grabbing efforts on the island.”
From a surfer’s first-hand perspective, the fast-moving currents sweeping down the west coast, along with muscular winter waves breaking in very shallow water, though superb for performance surfing, are dangerous for swimming and patently unsuitable for anyone but highly proficient water users.
Having been in there many times, it’s not hard to imagine people drowning and most Barbudans sensibly give Palmetto’s water a wide berth, preferring instead to swim at the protected Access Beach in the south coast towards Coco Point. Additionally, much of Palmetto and the west coast floods on large swell events, the area around Codrington Lagoon is essentially a sporadic wetland, completely unsuited to building on this scale.
It’s highly likely that the National Park and the Low Bay Marine Sanctuary immediately offshore, of course including the wave, will be irretrievably impacted (destroyed) if this development is allowed to continue. Furthermore, given this is due to be an exclusive private resort, there may well be access issues in the interim.
It is often said that the definition of insanity is “repeating the same things expecting different results”. So, why, in 2021 with all our history and knowledge of the natural world are we doing just that the world over? It’s baffling and something I’ve mused on over travels to formerly untouched regions of the globe.
Why is it that humans see something pristine and want it so much that they have to own it and ultimately sully the virginity that so struck them in the first place? With the diggers continuing apace in Barbuda, I’d been thinking about that this past weekend, when the answer came to me in the most unexpected way… Whilst watching my nieces, aged two and four, excitedly picking wild primroses here in the South Downs National Park, I found myself saying “Don’t pick too many, otherwise there’ll be less for other people to enjoy and less will grow next year.” That acquisitiveness is in our basic nature, right from day dot we see something beautiful and we have to have it. I wonder if people who never grow out of that unquenchable desire, those who are preoccupied with wealth, or possessions, have an element of their personality that never evolved?
Osho said it best:
“If you love a flower, don’t pick it up.Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love. So, if you love a flower, let it be. Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.”
Clearly the community and ecology take precedence over the loss of a surf spot, but it’s all connected. The island was ravaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017, most of the population lost just about everything as upwards of 90% of buildings were decimated. Locals were moved to neighbouring Antigua but have started to return over the last couple of years.
Now Barbudans are facing major problems associated with Covid. They need help rebuilding their lives and ideally sensitive tourism: ’take only pictures, leave only footprints’ style, seems the most viable long-term option. The intrinsic value in Barbuda is in maintaining the pristine nature of the island, which will provide a sustainable, consistent and indefinite income, rather than short term-ist almost neo-colonialism of foreign investors seemingly acting with impunity.
After keeping quiet about this location for so many years, it seems odd to be giving it all away now. Indeed, when we approached Save The Waves (STW) for help, their Conservation Programs Manager, Trent Hodges had never even heard of the place. That in itself presented a conundrum, as they’re normally involved with saving globally known waves. Over a series of calls though, STW have brilliantly shown how available and proactive they are and are coming around to the idea, that these hidden gems are as in need of saving as the hallmark spots.
Finally, a call to action: as surfers we interact with and love the world around us in a way few others do and the islanders, the spectacular Barbudan flora and fauna and of course the special wave at Palmetto need our help!
We are looking for web designers to help build the campaign website where all information, including updates on the legal battle, journalism, videos, photos and a link to the crowdfund will be located. The campaign desperately needs donations too.
As GLAN legal team leader Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn says: “We’ve been working for the Barbudans on a pro bono (free) basis thus far, but we want to take the fight to these developers, where they are based, through the US courts. We can do a lot with a little, but fighting billionaires in the US ultimately requires some financial help… All use of funds is fully transparent, accounted for and available for viewing.”
As we all know, the US is the home of capitalism, the place where “money talks and bullshit walks”, this is a ‘David and Goliath’ situation, but if we can come together to support Gearóid and the Barbudans by donating whatever we can, collectively we can turn the tide!
Please bombard the following social media channels with messages objecting to the project, both publicly in the comments box below pictures and in DMs. We need to make noise and crucially to keep it sustained:
For more info and updates, please see:
Please Like/follow Barbuda Silent No More on Facebook:
Further reading and to see the damage that’s already been done and digital renderings/animations of what they plan (bear in mind they have pulled some photographs/footage from existing resorts to make it look like the Palmetto project is already built!). Please see: