The latest flashpoint in the unfolding struggle within Antigua and Barbuda happened two weeks ago (July 1) when the Antigua and Barbuda government tried to seize control of the Barbuda Fisheries building. This social explosion continues to have reverberations. There was an intense stand-off with police. On the surface the quarrel was over Gaston Browne’s Antigua Labor Party demanding that the Barbuda Council hand over the keys to a building that is central to the Barbuda economy. This produced a national action by Barbudans to defend their Fisheries building that was quite remarkable, considering what Barbudans have been through in the past year. Barbudans have lived through great trauma and exhaustion but have an admirable will to preserve their way of life. Antigua and Barbuda, that eastern Caribbean federated country of two islands that became independent from Britain in 1981, is a small place but an unfolding site of global controversy. Since Hurricane Irma in 2017 displaced Barbudans from their homeland, many of the less than 2000 inhabitants were refugees on Antigua until recently. This precipitated hostile policies by the Gaston Browne led Antigua Labor Party government, where legislation was passed to enclose the commons in Barbuda. Though not animated by modern communist ideas, Barbudans have lived by communal land tenure since their emancipation from slavery in 1834.
The Browne government wishes to break up this communal land tenure by denying such a culture and heritage exists, attempting to issue private property deeds, and by speaking about the Barbudans as backward people who need to be subjected to a regiment of modern state planning. Browne, who sees development only in decimal points of economic growth and not the self-organization of ordinary people, has also been motivated to discipline the Barbudans by forging an alliance with the American actor Robert De Niro to build a resort on the other side of Barbuda. Mr. De Niro, one spry elder remarks, though having a “progressive” reputation has a very appropriate name. No matter how much De Niro acts as an advocate before the U.N. about saving the “paradise” of Barbuda, or projects visions of economic development as an appointed apostle of the Browne government, what he really is seeking is clear: added wealth to a fortune that is already excessive.
The Browne government has already started to build an airport in Barbuda to much controversy. There is an injunction against it, particularly for how the plan has shown no regard for the ecosystem of the island, threatening rare and endangering other species. The attorney-general of Antigua and Barbuda claims you can’t seek an injunction against the “crown.” This royalist colonial disposition referring to a post-independence government reminds this stale regime doesn’t even consider itself a bourgeois democracy.
Browne can be crafty when speaking to global media who ask about the 2007 Barbudan Land Act that his government overturned and can suggest that mischievous people are spreading lies about his administration. But his power-grab increasingly knows no bounds. Mr. Browne hates Barbuda. He shares with previous Antiguan statesmen this contempt but has elevated it to emotive tones. There is something about Barbuda’s communal mode of production that doesn’t quickly reduce the folk to “hewers of wood and drawers of water” (Joshua 9:23) or menial drudges that can be pushed around. Browne cannot collect his larger “consulting fees” from Robert De Niro and other global investors until he separates Barbudans from their rootedness in an ecological view of the commons. While laws have been passed that delegitimate Barbuda’s commons, and development projects continue to get imposed on Barbuda, the struggle continues. The attack on the Barbuda fisher folk is an attempt to police them into a false and invented economy that Browne and De Niro and their investor friends wish to put a fence around and declare it “mine.” This is what the Barbuda fisher folks are trying to resist.
Previously, we have explored some communal aspects of the Barbudan people, as this culture was known before Hurricane Irma. This elemental drive is still present among Barbudans as they struggle to rebuild their homes with limited aid and as the few hotels, that once dotted the island, are not presently open for business. Like those trying to recover in Louisiana and Florida, Puerto Rico and Dominica under the blows wrapped in the velvet glove of “aid,” Browne’s government has seized the opportunity to transition from facilitating emergency aid to policing the debts of disaster capitalism by chiding the Barbudans that they are not economically viable.
The Barbudans rallied around the Barbuda fisheries building because at present, fishing is the only economic activity where there is a level of autonomy and community control. Attacking the fisheries building was perceived by the Barbudan people as an attack on the economy of Barbuda as a whole. It is worth examining the Barbuda fishers’ work culture to get a better sense of the way of life that is being threatened, Mr. Devon Warner, the president of the Barbuda Fisher Folk Association, explained, after receiving a series of questions for this inquiry.
Most fishing boats in Barbuda are about 23-25 feet long and have a crew of three whom fish together. Most members of the association own their own boat, but the newer boats that are owned are attained by taking on a mortgage. Obviously, some workers on the crews are not boat owners. The type of boats most fish by are either Pirogue or Eduardono. These boats are similar to Japanese designs and are built and sold in Belize, Venezuela and Trinidad.
The work day for fishers begins at sea at 8am and return by 4pm more or less. The fishing boats go out 12-20 miles into the ocean. Some fish by way of traps, some are free-divers (using only masks and fins), and some are scuba divers. Some fishers both dive and trap, and this means they function alternatively further and closer to the coast. The fishers who trap are looking mostly for lobster. But the traps take in all kinds of fish. Depending on the season fishers are gathering snapper, parrot or angel fish. Scuba Divers primarily pursue lobster and conch. Natural Divers seek both fish and lobster, and conch. Each fish has a particular season and some seasons overlap – the fishers fish all year round.
On occasion some women fish and drive the boats for their men. Most women in the fisher economy assist in packaging, cleaning, and marketing the fish. Not necessarily in the fishery building, this work is done in many places. Lobster is seasonal, conch is seasonal, grouper is seasonal, parrot fish is seasonal – the season is based on the scientific time of the year when they spawn. Fishers fish all-year round, most seasons have a two-month period.
Mr. Warner explains: “Barbudan fishers are the best marine biologists in the world – the greatest conservationists in the world.” Their culture of fishing is not learned formally in school but passed down by tradition from a father, mother, or uncle. While most fisher boats use GPS or compass there are those fishers who don’t use such technology but use natural and land marks that guide them to their preferred sites. This takes an ingenuity in the ocean waves miles away from the coast. Fishing poles are rarely used and only for an occasional tournament in Barbuda. Most fishers are spear fishers. Some use spear guns. Spear fishers look for a particular size or quality of fish. Fishers are looking for plate size (pound, pound and half, no fish comfortable in the palm of your hand). Some of the hazards of being a fisher include a diver at sixty, seventy, or eighty feet deep might see sharks, barracuda, dangerous eels. While fishers tell stories of sharks stealing their catch, for decades nobody has heard a story of a shark attack on the fisher’s person. But injuries can happen in the boats. Fishers can step on something sharp (like a shell, or a fish with poisonous parts or may slip in the wet environment). Sometimes fishers get caught on barnacles. When fishers cut themselves on the boat, they are careful to stop the bleeding before getting back in the water given sharks can be present. Divers on occasion have been known to die at sea or become incapacitated; descending or rising too quickly can cause a crisis through loss of oxygen or other problems such “the bends” or decompression sickness. Barbuda fishermen use dishwashing liquids (like Dawn) to clean their tools and the boat, never heavy disinfectants like bleach that could injure the environment. Fish are not in the boat for long time. The fish are placed directly into ice boxes. In other countries, fishers are known to use explosives to blow up coral, in the theory of increasing their catch, and have the fish rise to the top. Barbudan fishers do not do that. Warner explains, in theory it may increase the catch, but explosives can undermine the quality of the catch. Barbudans are also very sensitive to the ecology of the coral surrounding parts of their island. Barbudans tend to save the best lobster and fish for exports and eat those that come below the recommended market size. Presently there is an influx of foreign fishers (from Antigua, Jamaica, and other islands). It is perceived these fishers don’t take the same care as the Barbudans and do not respect the seasonal nature of fishing which makes it more ecologically sustainable. What does sustainability mean to Barbudans? It is difficult to frame it in some academic theory because they do not live by such theories. Most fishers have no overhead or major expenses. Those who own the boats or have a mortgage have a little more overhead and make significantly more. But without a doubt the cost of living in Barbuda is lower than what we might expect. In Barbuda you are able to build a house but don’t have to buy land – this impacts costs of living. The average fisher can have a home in five years (they must pay utilities). The culture of Barbuda is very instinctively cooperative. There is a culture of “len-han” especially in building and casting the concrete foundations of their homes. The Barbudans do rotational slash and burn agriculture, rotating the crops, but also usage of the land. Barbudans are very self-reliant and do their own ecological planning, only clearing the land they will utilize.
There are no hard or fast punishments to discipline the work culture of the Barbuda fishers. They live by the adage: “Every day is fishing day, but every day is not catching day.” A successful catch may mean fishers fish for two days and rest for two days. Is this a culture of an unproductive people? What does it mean for a nation or community to be developed and productive? Must humans mass produce an excessive surplus to then fight over who controls “the wealth” without any regard for ensuring the necessities of life are, not “accessible,” but distributed equally. Barbudans, as a whole population, stood up to the Browne government because fishing is at present the main current of their economy, and it seems the government demanded keys to the building. This was a farce. Since the hurricane the police had occupied the building because their station house was destroyed. The Barbuda Council demanded them to get out so the place could be cleaned and organized for the lobster season. The Browne government saw this as an opportunity to continue his sometimes low-intensity, sometimes open campaign of coercion and hostility. The national action to defend the Fisheries building was a moment of embarrassment and retreat for the Browne regime.
Other than sand mining since Hurricane Irma, fishing is the basis of earnings that drive what is left of an economy trying to recover from disaster. There are no functional hotels on the island at this time. The Barbudan Fisher Folk’s struggle for community control is of larger significance than what this small island now short of a thousand people may suggest. The Barbuda fishers are sometimes formally, sometimes informally connected to a network of fishers in St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Guyana, Dominica, Barbados – sometimes as far away as Panama.
If one observes the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM), and the Caribbean Network of Fisherfolk Organizations (CNFO), one gets a sense of the networks of economic and ecological information sharing and global solidarity that flows through the fishers that some of the Barbudan fishers are in conversation. There is an attempt to forge common principles across the Anglophone Caribbean and in conversation with the French and Creole speakers of Haiti and the Dutch speaking in Suriname where possible. At the same time “sustainability” as promoted in these official networks has no critique of private property relations. This can undermine commitment to this principle which only commons for all can ensure. This reflects a tension for the future of Barbuda and the Caribbean.
As fishers and other toilers seek to preserve the ocean’s bounty, and the broader ecology, and to promote and defend eco-tourism, will global visitors pursue their sense of being refreshed by nature’s wonders with concern for the social reproduction of Caribbean people insisting on commons for all that they do not demand yet for their own metropolitan imperial centers? Will this unfolding Caribbean struggle educate the so-called more developed world about what needs to be done? Or will this ecological endeavor, short of a deep critique of capitalism, make the Caribbean a safari destination like Africa, where visitors are enchanted more by the flora and fauna than the vitality of people? One thing is for sure, Barbuda and the Caribbean need friends who toil themselves and not wealthy celebrities who already live behind property surrounded by walls.
There is a broader Global Fisherman’s Movement with chapters in the U.S., Canada, Japan, India, the Philippines, Senegal, Chile, Italy, and Norway. And while Barbudan fishers may have not linked up with it yet, this global movement is concerned with the same issues (enclosure of the commons, protecting food security and the environment) that Barbudans are facing.
The conflict between Antigua and Barbuda can be unproductively seen as a tragedy – there is potential for a small experiment in Caribbean federation to break up because of the abuse of one island government over another. Though we should be alert that there is a movement on both islands that supports the autonomy of Barbuda as proper terms for Caribbean unity. Yet, the informal networks and practices of the Barbuda fisher folk and the broader fight for community control of the island in the wake of disaster capitalism could be pointing the way to a new movement for Caribbean federation and liberation from below. Such a creative response to unfolding obstacles cannot be the burden of the Barbudan fisher folk alone. Barbudans wish to get the word out from their small place in the eastern Caribbean to the world about their fight – it may be misread as a small skirmish rather than a major battle. This is a mistake. The encounter with ecological disaster and dispossession is coming closer in many global locations and may be the future of the multitudes if we don’t rethink with Barbudans how to resist.