Scores of Barbudans were engaged in a five-hour standoff with police yesterday over access to the Fisheries Complex, intermittently chanting “no retreat, no surrender” as they vowed not to hand over the keys for the building to anyone.
The Complex has been serving as accommodation for police officers in Barbuda since September last year, as the rebuilding of the hurricane-ravaged island continues.
But, the Barbuda Council has decided that due to the open season for lobster which began yesterday, the officers should vacate the building so that fishermen can use the facility for the purpose for which it was built.
The MP for Barbuda, Trevor Walker, explained that in order for the fishermen to meet required exportation standards, they must do so from “a sanitised facility approved by the EU and the complex is that facility.”
He also indicated that fishermen need uninhibited access “to fill their diving tanks with air there as well.”
“Without this complex lobster cannot be shipped to the EU market and it would be a huge blow for us, it is an $8 million dollar industry,” he reiterated.
The complex, according to Walker, was a gift to the people of Barbuda, particularly the fishermen, from the government of Japan.
He said if the instruction was given by the government to the police to take the keys, it was on a false premise because the central government “has no authority over this building…we cannot allow Gaston Browne and his government to come here and intimidate us.”
Usually, six officers are stationed in Barbuda, but yesterday a contingent of about 18 more officers traveled to the island to secure the keys, according to reports from several sources over there.
Walker, who addressed Barbudans at a village shop – Lalinc – and then again outside the Fisheries Complex in Codrington, said any move by the government to secure the keys and take it to mainland Antigua, would effectively shut down the livelihood of all fishermen and others who benefit from the industry in Barbuda which has very limited sources of income outside of fishing and sand mining.
According to Walker, the police told him and other councillors on his side – The Barbuda People’s Movement – that the keys must be handed to them and taken to Cheryl Appleton who heads the fisheries division and who is based in Antigua. Additionally, he said the police advised him that if the councillors failed to deliver the keys, lawmen will shut down the complex with the support of more officers who are reportedly set to go to the island today.
Walker said the police were advised two months ago to find alternative living facilities in time for the reopening of the lobster season so it came as a surprise to him when lawmen showed up yesterday demanding the keys.
Up to last night, the officers had unrestricted access to the complex and Walker said “nobody was there to throw them out, we have been peaceful so what’s this now about handing over keys?”
In a video circulating on social media, Walker tells Barbudans, “This is a very serious matter, I have said to the police, I have been in parliament for 10 years, I know the law…the central government has no jurisdiction over this building, we cannot afford to give up our rights. So from where I sit, I will not authorise any keys to be handed over to the police.”
In response, some members of the crowd shouted, “No we not giving up, no way, we right ya, nuh give up no keys.”
He called on all Barbudans to stand up and protect “their rights.”
“I want every Barbudan to be here with their children at 8 o’clock tomorrow [today]. Man, woman, child, let us continue tomorrow [today] because we want to see what happens,” to which some in the gathering replied, “We nar go no way. We go sleep tonight right ya. No retreat, no surrender.”
Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Barbuda Council, Wade Burton has joined in blaming the Prime Minister, Gaston Browne for the actions of the police.
And, he too indicated this move to secure the keys would hurt the people.
“A lot of fishermen depend on lobster exports to make a living. Given that we can’t get money from the government because for the last three weeks the government has not given us any subvention we have been raising money on what we do normally,” he said.
Burton explained that the presence of the police occupying the building will delay the lobster exports for at least another month.
He added that a high ranking official from the police force is due to be in Barbuda soon to discuss the matter with the Council.
Burton said the day ended with tensions still high, but, assured there was no physical confrontation between the demonstrators and the police. However, two young females reportedly got into a fight, but he said he was uncertain as to why.