SIDEBAR: The Minister responds
This is a short video (courtesy of TV6) in which the Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, responds to questions on the occupation of State lands in Couva by SIS Ltd, one of the main financiers of the Peoples Partnership.
The ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is being implemented by the Land Settlement Agency (LSA), has now been redefined in such stark terms that I have decided to call it by a more appropriate title ‘Land for Everybody’.
The previous article set out the main points of the revised program. That detrimental law was approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3rd June. Although we have now heard that the new law to amend the State Lands 1998 Act was withdrawn just before the close of our Parliament on Friday 12th June 2015, we are also being told that it will be approved if the Peoples Partnership is returned to office after the national elections in September.
This change to our country’s squatter regularisation law is therefore now being held out as an expansive election promise to regularise the status of some 60,000 landless people. That proposed program is a severely detrimental one which will likely lead to greater problems in the important question of our country’s human settlement policy. It is therefore necessary to highlight the dangers this new ‘Land for Everybody‘ program poses to our collective interests.
The Minister of Land and Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, gave several interviews which attempted to rebut my criticisms, so it is important that that these fundamental issues be properly understood. The public interest demands nothing less.
Food security is that elusive state in which we can feed ourselves at a decent standard of nourishment and at an affordable price, without heavy reliance on imported food. The very issue of how food security is defined is hotly debated, but it is clear that we are far away from even the simple one I offered.
In March 2012 the then Ministry of Agriculture, Land & Marine Resources published its Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015. The major goal of that Action Plan was to halve the country’s annual $4.0 Billion food import bill. Yet in March 2014, the Food Production Minister, Senator Devant Maharaj, stated that the food import bill had been reduced by only 2% since 2010. That is a sobering reflection on how serious is the challenge of moving to some significant degree of food security, even for an administration with substantial links in the agricultural sector.
The significant reduction of our food import bill will require a flexible plan, with dedicated implementation and continuous monitoring. The one inescapable requirement is for farmers to have access to land of suitable quantity, quality and location. Without a good supply of land, no food security plan can succeed.
The issue is a long-term one, so it is clear from the failure to achieve the targets that a deeper commitment of resources and monitoring is needed if we are to improve our collective position. The Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015 is now up for thorough review which must include serious input from the public and stakeholders.
Shiraz Khan, President of the Trinidad United Farmers’ Association, has spoken out about the disastrous land use policies now unfolding and I have also heard Omardath Maharaj join the calls for a holistic discussion of agriculture policy.
What is the policy?
We are reliably informed that the new ‘Land for the Landless’ policy was approved by Cabinet on 19th March 2015, but there is no clarity as to whether this policy conforms to the existing 1992 Land Policy. The recently-approved policy ought to be subordinate to the wider Land Policy, which states at page 9 –
“4. LAND USE POLICY
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…”
It is imperative that our country’s human settlement policies take proper account of the need to preserve our limited supply of arable land, so that we can maintain some degree of food security.
The critical point is that our total supply of land is very limited, due to the tiny size of our country. The supply of arable land which has not been developed is even more limited, so the choices are stark. There is not enough land for us to continue with this reckless policy of land distribution or large-scale building of houses with gardens. To continue with those policies would be watching a disaster unfold before our very eyes.
I have heard occasional statements from the HDC or Housing Ministry, in this and previous administrations, but that is merely to mention a major issue. This is a serious issue with dire long-term consequences for our society and a proper, wide-ranging policy review is urgently required. That review must include the 2002 Housing Policy, the 2003 UWI Report on the future of Caroni lands, the 1992 Land Policy and the Land for the Landless policy.
How many people will be affected by this policy?
There was some dispute over numbers, with the PM claiming that 30,000 squatters were to be regularised, the Minister of Land & Marine Resources doubling that to 60,000, all while the LSA website states that there are 250,000 squatters.
At one point, the official rebuttal seemed to be that there were 60,000 households with 250,000 inhabitants, but since the three cited statements were referring to ‘squatters’, that line has now been abandoned. We are now told that the intention is to regularise 60,000 of an estimated total of 250,000 ‘squatters’.
How are the 60,000 eligible persons to be selected?
So, which 60,000 people are to be regularised out of the 250,000? How is that selection to be made? Even after all this defensive talk, I am not at all clear on that.
Will the decisive point be the date of application or the length of time a squatter community has been established? The date-based approach would have some legal weight, given that squatters’ rights have usually accrued in accordance with the period of occupation. To my mind, that would be a weak basis on which to proceed, given the shortage of land and variety in its quality.
In the alternative would the choices of communities to be regularised be based on an assessment of alternative uses or land value? What role would the fertility of the soil play in making these important decisions? If we are to have a reasonable chance of tackling the food security issue, it is critical that these factors play an important part in making these decisions. That is not negotiable.
Finally, one has to mention the elephant in the room. Could it be that the selection of those 60,000 squatters is a political one? Are marginal constituencies to be favoured? Is that a possible outcome we ought to guard against? Which are the constituencies in which the selected communities are located?
The Bill to amend the State Lands Act 1998 comprised 24 pages and we need to note that 20 of those pages was an expansive list covering at least 500 areas or districts in our country. I quipped ‘Charlotteville to Los Iros‘, but the point is that with so expansive a list of areas, just about anywhere could be eligible for regularisation. You see?
The point of how these critical selections are being made is one which must be answered as soon and as clearly as possible.
Who qualifies as ‘landless’?
SIDEBAR: The LSA’s abortive meeting with JCC
In March 2015, the LSA wrote informally to seek dialogue with JCC on this revised ‘Land for the Landless’ program and we responded by requesting an agenda and a formal invitation. Despite our constant efforts, we are still awaiting a response.
This is the most damaging part of this proposed policy shift, with the new income levels having shifted to a monthly maximum of $30,000, together with the elimination of ‘disadvantaged’ as a decisive criteria having the combined impact of making these scarce lands available to anyone. The fact is that a family with a monthly income in the $30,000 can readily qualify for a mortgage in the $1.6-1.7M range and there are plenty of good-quality homes in that price range for sale in our country.
The CSO’s 2009 data on monthly Household Income shows a national average in the $8,000 range. Yet we have a Minister, supported by his professional staff, advancing a policy which is seeking to extend a program intended for the benefit of our neediest citizens to just about anyone.
One can only wonder what was the research on which this bizarre policy was based.
This is no time for inadvisable and ill-considered electoral promises, from either side. Our children’s children will wonder just what kind of intentions did we have. History will judge us harshly if we continue with this foolhardy basket of policies.