Squat lords rule

Death threats, an upsurge in violence and heated confrontation with thugs and squatters in the community of Bois Bande Village, Sangre Grande, over agricultural lands have lead to several farmers abandoning their productive acreages. Once a thriving agricultural district, Bois Bande has seen a drastic decline in its farming population as a result of the influx of squatters and undesirables who have been throwing up wooden and concrete structures for rental.

Dalton Pantin, president of the Bois Bande Farmers’ Association admits that farmers have been fleeing the agricultural district. The association started with 21 members over ten years ago. Today, there are only eight farmers, many of whom are not actively involved in cultivation. Pantin blames the squatters’ invasion for the drastic decline in the number of farmers and called on the Ministry of Food Production, and Commissioner of State Lands for swift action, pleading that farmers are living in fear.

Land grabbing
Bois Bande is one of 251 squatting sites listed on the Land Settlement Agency’s (LSA) schedule. On Tuesday, Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal said Cabinet may soon purchase an ultra light aircraft as part of the ministry’s arsenal to deal with squatting. The $3 million aircraft may better monitor those who move onto state lands overnight and erect illegal structures, Moonilal explained. In 1991, the farmers who had a vested interest in farming were given Letters of Comfort by the then United National Congress government to occupy prime agricultural lands at Bois Bande Village, which nestles in the Valencia Forest Reserve.

After cultivating the land, Pantin said, they were told that the 90 hectares had been earmarked for residential and agricultural settlement. To avoid confrontation and disputes, the land was surveyed by the then Ministry of Agriculture and sub-divided into plots for the 21 settling farmers who had cultivated the land for more than five years. “Things were really looking up for the farmers,” Pantin recalled. This was, however, short-lived when in 2000 outsiders started threatening, beating, terrorising and chasing the farmers from their holdings. Pantin, himself a victim of an unruly mob, admitted that the situation intensified following the 2010 general election, with thugs and squatters ‘grabbing’ land left, right and centre.

Death threats
Abhiraj Mahabir, one of 13 farmers who fled, admitted he still lives with apprehension after a squatter threatened to shoot him for the four-acre parcel he occupied. Out of the blue last year, Mahabir, 35, said a man claiming to have ownership of the land, showed up and started felling his orange, mango and coconut trees. “When I enquired from the man what he was doing, he threatened to shoot me. I had to back off.” Fearful that harm might have come his way, Mahabir said he had to surrender the land he cultivated for years.

With job opportunities far and few between, Mahabir said he started plying his car for hire to put food on the table. Mahabir said shortly after the encroachment, the man erected two houses on the land. Though a report was made to the ministry’s El Reposo office in Sangre Grande and the police, Mahabir said: “Nothing was done. The police told me they are unable to help.” Mahabir explained that the squatters do not qualify for regularisation under Act 25 of 1998.

Looking on helplessly
Fruit farmer, Terry Monsegue who had to make a hasty retreat from his three-acre parcel in 2005 after being beaten and planassed by thugs, has now turned to vehicle repair for a living. A father of four boys, Monsegue said 13 crudely built wooden shacks were constructed overnight on the land he had vacated. Several tenants now occupy them. “There is nothing I can do. I just have to look on helplessly,” Mahabir said.

Strong arm tactics
Seeta Nanlal said she, too, had to scale down production on her five- acre plot. Nanlal said four concrete apartments were constructed on lands she once cultivated. “The houses are being rented. This has been going on for some time now,” Nanlal revealed. A farmer all his life, Pantin said he, too, had to put up a fight when an unruly mob of squatters moved in and chopped down two acres of bodi and string beans at the side of his humble home. “They wanted to take my land. They were using intimidatory and strong-arm tactics to get me to leave. But I stood my ground.”

In 2003, the squatters also removed and destroyed several wooden poles which he had planted along the boundary of his premises to erect a chain link fence. Sangre Grande officers were eventually called in and the squatter was charged with destruction of private property. After months of attending the Sangre Grande court, Pantin became frustrated and dropped the matter. “The matter kept prolonging until I gave up. The judicial system was failing me.” Pantin said the behaviour of the squatters was no different from that of the cutlass wielding thugs in Lopinot who last year had encroached on lands belonging to bona fide farmers to scare them off.

Fighting a losing battle
President of the National Foodcrop Farmers’ Association Terrence Haywood said for far too long this problem has been existing. Haywood said both associations intend to discuss the matter this week with Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath. Haywood said his heart goes out to the farmers who have been fighting a losing battle. “This should have never happened in the first place. No farmer should have reason to abandon his lands because of squatters.”

Dr Sammy: They are building with impunity
Dr Allen Sammy, chief executive officer of the LSA admits that Bois Bande was one of several areas squatters have been erecting houses for rent. “It’s happening all over. We have been trying to curb the squatting in this area and other areas, without success,” he said. Sammy said the problem was magnified following a judgement in January 2011 by Justice Carol Gobin, who stated that the LSA’s move to destroy squatters’ homes in 2008 was unlawful. The Commissioner of State Lands, Gobin said, had all responsibility for dealing with squatters and not the LSA. The judgement effectively meant that squatters had a level of protection, as the LSA can no longer move in and evict anyone squatting on state lands.

Sammy said squatters have been zeroing in on forest reserve which, in fact, ought to be protected. “But there is nothing we can do legally at this time.” Sammy said Moonilal was looking at amendments to the State Lands Act and the State Land Regularisation of Tenure Act of 1998. The amendments will give the Commissioner of State Lands power to demolish illegal squatter dwellings. “Our emerging evidence has shown that people are building concrete structures all over the place. They think they are becoming wise and, yes, they are renting them out. This is what we call squat lords.” Sammy said following the 2010 general election the LSA was faced with an emergence of squatters who started erecting concrete houses.

“It got worse last year when the ruling came out. They have built with impunity all over the place.” Among the areas mottled with illegal concrete structures, Sammy said, are Wallerfield and Arouca. “People feel that a concrete structure will save them from demolition. When the time comes, after we have served notices, I don’t care if they have concrete structures or not. If it is a violation of the land and we have the authority to serve and demolish…we will do it.”