A detrimental ‘land grab’ is almost upon our country and we all need to be alert to prevent the destruction of our patrimony and prospects.
The State owns most of the land in the country – recent estimates by Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, place the proportion of State-owned land in the 63% range – and as such those lands are critical national assets with which a progressive government could seek to address issues of poverty in a sustainable fashion. Those policies would have to be redistributive in nature if they are to effectively address the serious poverty faced by some of our citizens. That means the State using our resources to provide affordable land and housing to those who are unable to do so in the open market. It is critical to ensure that these redistributive programs operate properly so that the benefits will go to the needy persons for whom they are intended. Those are objectives which I fully support.
I quipped that the ‘Land for the Landless’ program should be re-named ‘Land for Everybody’, but recent developments have turned that quip into a growing reality.
There have been three big changes which have effectively undermined the very meaning of these important redistributive programs –
THE CARONI AGRICULTURAL LANDS
The Trinidad Express reported that the Minister of Finance & the Economy, Larry Howai, announced a significant change in the original policy in the 2015 budget, in that the ex-workers receiving agricultural leases were now free to sell these lands. Those lands which are sold will likely leave the agricultural use for which they were allocated, representing a significant and detrimental ‘alienation’ of those limited lands.
THE NEW ‘LAND FOR THE LANDLESS’ PROGRAM
This important program has been revised to now provide for an annual target of 3,000 to 4,000 lots at an estimated annual cost of $1.0 Billion. Even if one makes the most optimistic assumptions that the upper target of 4,000 lots is achieved at the estimated cost of $1.0 Billion, the cost per lot is $250,000. I do not know if the cost of the land is included in those estimates, but experience suggests that it would have been excluded, which would be a serious gap in the planning for the development of these important public assets.Most alarmingly, the income limits have now been increased in a manner which suggests that this program is no longer intended for the benefit of the disadvantaged in our society. The original ‘Land for the Landless’ program set an upper limit of $8,000 on the family’s monthly income, but that has now been increased to $30,000. A family with a monthly income of $30,000 can readily afford to buy a home with private mortgage financing. Apart from that, there are serious questions as to whether the inclusion of those upper-income applicants would force-out the poorer people this program is intended to assist.
It is just impossible to reconcile the new family income limit of $30,000 for the ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is only for residential lots, with the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) $25,000 limit on the monthly family income of applicants for homes.
THE NEW LAND REFORMS
The government laid the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2015 in Parliament on Friday 29 May and those proposed amendments were passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3 June 2015.
The main points of this proposed new law, which still has to be approved by the Senate, are –
- Application date – formerly, persons who had illegally occupied State Lands up to January 1998 were entitled to be regularised – the new law would move that date to June 2014. That means that more persons will be regularised;
- The numbers – There are serious questions arising about the numbers to be regularised in this process – the PM said recently that 30,000 were to be given Certificates of Comfort, Minister Seemungal is now saying that it is really 60,000, while the LSA website gives estimates of 250,000 persons. So, just what are we counting? Do these numbers represent inhabitants or is it the number of lots? We have no real clarity on just how much additional land is to be allocated in this new process.
- Who is ‘Landless’? – In the original 1998 Act, a ‘landless’ person is defined at S.2 (1) as –
“…“landless” refers to a person who falls within a category designated as disadvantage (sic) by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and who has no legal or equitable interest or any other interest or claim to such an interest, in a dwelling house, residential land, or agricultural land upon which a dwelling house is permitted to be built…”
Obviously, the original law was intended to assist the most needy persons in our society.In the proposed amendment, just approved by the House of Representatives, ‘landless’ has been redefined as follows –
“…(c) in the definition of “landless”, by deleting the words “who falls within a category designated as disadvantage by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and…” (the emphases are mine)
The landless class has now been expanded by our Parliament to eliminate any mention of disadvantage. I tell you.
- Where is the land? – The Schedule of the new law is an A to Z list of designated areas in every district of our country, so these are really expansive proposals. All areas will be affected, from Charlotteville to Los Iros.
- The rationale – Minister Seemungal stated that there are extensive aerial surveys from 2014 and other information being used to guide this process, but I think significant caution is necessary. The lack of an open process of policy review and formation in this important matter is proving very expensive for our collective interests. Have other State agencies and stakeholders been consulted? These critical policy changes must be underpinned by substantial research and consultation which can earn the required degree of public confidence.
- Who benefits? – We do not have any open database on the allocation of public housing, state land or any property at all. These records must be open and searchable so that the potential for serious improper behaviour amounting to a ‘land grab’ is minimised. In the present opaque arrangement the real beneficiaries could remain unknown for too long. Of course that is a recipe for the misallocation of State lands on an epic scale, so it is important to establish some transparent mechanism to examine what is happening.
When one considers the numbers involved, there is a clear sense that these programs, which were intended to benefit the poorer class of citizen, are being systematically ‘gamed’. It is even possible that officials are assisting those elements for the advancement of their own political agendas. The numbers wrangle is beyond the scope of this column, but I will be exploring it in the near future to explain how they relate a particular story.
The degree of confusion is immense, with LSA officers denying the existence of the national Land Policy. If we are to go by his evasive response to simple questions on the SIS occupation of State lands at Couva in disputed circumstances, the very Minister Seemungal can be seen as hostile to providing essential facts. The PM told the Parliament the next day that the Minister had denied making those televised statements.
We need to be alert to protect our patrimony, particularly in relation to property.