Our Land – The meaning of the 1992 Land Policy

The Trinidad & Tobago Land Policy of 1992 has not been reviewed, withdrawn or superceded. Those are the facts. The responses of various public officials when queried, and the routine conduct of public bodies in relation to public land, are both in conflict with the existing policy. This article will explore the gap between the official policy and official conduct.

The 1992 Policy contains elements which are substantially beneficial to our nation.

Land is very important, especially because the quantity is very limited, so we need future-looking and properly-enforced Land Policy if we are to have a sustainable future in our country. I am specifically using ‘we’, since the important role of land requires us all to have a stake in these progressive outcomes. I am also specifically using ‘in our country‘, to emphasise the fact that most of us will have to live here.

This week’s column will set out some of the key elements in the 1992 Land Policy, so that we can begin to understand just why it has been effectively dismissed from official consideration.

State ownership

Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources
Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources

An important consideration is the high proportion of public land in our country, at para 1.2 on page 2 of the Land Policy we learn that an estimated 52% of the whole is State land. We also recently heard Land & Marine Resources Minister, Jairam Seemungal, state that the proportion of land belonging to the State is of the order of 58% of the whole. Because so much of the country’s land belongs to the State, it is therefore critical to ensure we have a robust policy in respect of State land.

An estimated 47% of State land is forested and therefore subject to certain controls. The non-forested State lands are about 133,000 hectares, which is about 329,000 acres.

The estimated land area designated as suitable for cultivation is about 35% of the whole, comprising about 179,000 hectares or 442,000 acres.

Agricultural Land

According to the 1992 policy, there is a significant decline in the proportion of suitable land actually under cultivation, from 74% in 1963 to about 60% in 1982.

We need to consider food security as an important part of our country’s security. Our taste for foreign food and drinks; the uncertainty of our foreign exchange supply and the continuing loss of agricultural land, all mean that it is critical for land use policy to support our country’s food security policies.

History shows that once land is removed from agricultural use for other types of development, it is almost always lost for future agricultural use. That is described as ‘land alienation’ to signify a complete loss.

We have already lost some of our most fertile lands to contemporary development – eg three major areas completely lost are Valsayn as well as the River and Diamond Estates in Diego Martin. The very fertile Aranjuez lands are being rapidly developed with housing and commercial uses.

In fact, the lands at Tucker Valley in Chaguaramas are some of the last remaining first-class agricultural land in the country. To my mind this means that extra attention must be paid to any proposals for the use or development of those lands. Most importantly, those proposals must be ventilated and considered within the context of the land policy.

So, what does our official land policy state on this critical issue?

At page 9 –

4.          LAND USE POLICY

Land Zoning

4.1                During the period of the oil boom (1974-1982) there was great incentive to shift land out of agricultural into other uses such as housing developments and industrial/commercial activity. In the process much good agricultural land was irretrievably misallocated. This is confirmed by the 1982 Agricultural Census.

4.2                The New Land Policy proposes:

(a) that the existing system of land use zoning be strengthened to ensure that prime agricultural land is not mis-managed or converted to non-agricultural uses except on the basis of a significant spatial or economic development rationale…

Land for the Landless

That program has just been further extended to provide more land to a broader range of applicants as announced by the Minister in mid-March 2015.

The expanded program is to provide between 3,000 to 4,000 lots each year, at an estimated annual cost of $1.0 Billion. The Minister also proposed an increase of the income limits for applicants from the previous figure to a new joint monthly income of $30,000.

This ‘Land for the Landless‘ program will require our sternest scrutiny, given its key features. For one thing, the annual target of 3,000 to 4,000 lots means that about 200 hectares (or 500 acres) of land would be distributed each year. How can we ensure that this program does not cause more loss of our limited agricultural land? Where is all this land going to come from? Given the fact that most officials seem unaware of our country’s existing land policy, this is a serious issue. Indeed, the very Land Settlement Agency stated that they were unaware of any State land policy when we contacted them before starting this series. So that is the problem, the officials who should know, don’t know and what is more, they don’t know that they don’t know. I tell you.

But the situation becomes even less acceptable when we consider the increased income levels in the expanded program. The intention of this program, as I understand it, is to provide subsidised housing lots to poorer people who are unable to afford land and intend to build their own homes. A family with a combined monthly income of $30,000 would comfortably qualify for private mortgage financing to buy a home in the $1.5M+ price range. To expand a program intended to serve the poorer groups of hopeful homeowners in this way is a wanton diversion of limited State resources – both land and finance – for some other purpose.

HDC allocation policy sets a monthly household income limit at $25,000 and LSA is now racing ahead to offer subsidised land to families earning up to $30,000 a month. I tell you.

It seems like this program is really ‘Land for Everybody’.

Public Database

Here is Land & Marine Resources Minister Jairam Seemungal speaking on Caroni Lands to Parliament on 11th July 2014 (pg 141)

…With this, Mr. Speaker, you would find that you have lands all over the place, they have thousands and thousands and thousands of acres. Just under the Caroni (1975) Limited alone, they had over 70,000 acres of land, and now I am finding it is closer to 90,000 aces to 100,000 acres of land they had, and we can only know that, Mr. Speaker, by using a scientific approach…

So, there is official uncertainty as to the true land area of the Caroni estate.

The most important finding, thus far, is the extent to which the basic policy and information is unknown, which would be a very bad situation, or it is known and is being purposely ignored. The former case would be a very sorry story in terms of how our country has been run for too long, but the latter case would be far, far worse. So, which is it?

What we need as a starting-point in this process of managing the critical asset of land, is an open, searchable database with details of all the country’s property, public and private. The 2009 Property Tax proposals made by the Manning administration would have required such a database if the new system was to have worked. There was considerable merit in those proposals, but the strong opposition killed the idea and the Peoples Partnership shelved the Property Tax after winning elections in May 2010.

There are substantial landowners and land-grabbers who would have had their holdings and operations exposed to critical scrutiny if such a database had been established. Those people have benefitted from the continued opaque arrangements.

So, what does the Land Policy say on this?

(page 6)

“…Establishment of National Land Information System

3.4                  …Lack of timely information results in loss of revenues, loss of investment opportunities and inefficiencies in land management…

3.5                  The New Land Policy proposes establishment of an integrated graphic and non-graphic national land information system as a matter of priority. This system will be computer-based…”

Of course, back in 1992, the internet was in its infancy, so the proposal was not for online access.

There have been some steps to complete the required database, but given the amount of money which has flowed through our Treasury and the enlightened policy being established in 1992, we are still without the required detailed, public information.

The question is ‘Which interests are served by operating in the shadows?

Conclusion

Our country has severe limits on the available land, so we need a proper system to ensure that those lands are used in a sustainable and equitable manner. Despite its beneficial aspects, it is clear to me that the 1992 Land Policy is in need of revision. In the interim, that policy must be observed. The concerned members of the public need to inform themselves to defend our patrimony.

To be continued…

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4 thoughts on “Our Land – The meaning of the 1992 Land Policy

  1. My Brother,

    I have read all this material on the land. You should post a warning sign: Not very good bed time reading. When I put this together with all the other information about Chaguaramas, clearly there is a need for urgency to put a halt to the current pattern of development beginning with a stop to the comprehensive despoliation of the Western peninsula which is proceeding rapidly.

    Continue doing the great job that you are doing.

    Khafra

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