Editorial: Good move, Prime Minister
As the country enters preparation mode for the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season, we note that Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has ordered the removal of persons who live near or on riverbanks.
According to a report from the Jamaica Information Service, Mrs Simpson Miller addressed the existing and future vulnerabilities of persons who live in these flood-prone areas at a recent meeting of the National Disaster Committee held at Jamaica House.
We believe the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development has a task on its hands to persuade hundreds of families to move house. But we are firmly behind the prime minister that a way has to be found to get this done to avert loss of life and mitigate the misery and human suffering brought on by disasters.
Over the years, fierce storms and hurricanes have sounded powerful alarms about the dangers of living on riverbanks and other vulnerable areas. Yet the landless continue to be lured into these dangerous living situations with the explanation that people have to live where they can afford to reside. These informal settlements generally lack basic amenities such as water, electricity and sanitation.
Mrs Simpson Miller herself recognised the challenge facing her Government in trying to move these persons who are essentially squatters.
"We have to identify somewhere that is safer and relocate them," suggested the prime minister. The question is, where might that be? Rough estimates suggest there are as many as one million squatters in Jamaica, although not all of them are living in the precarious situation of perching on riverbanks. But high property values and land tenure problems have driven many to these marginal areas where they face hazards.
We can't help but wonder how the National Housing Trust can be made to play a greater role in satisfying the hunger for land and housing being felt by the poor.
"If they refuse to come off, then the Government should issue an enforcement order for them to remove, but we cannot allow what is happening to continue," the prime minister reportedly told the meeting.
Removing them should be easy enough, since squatters are essentially trespassers and have no rights to the property they occupy. However, we expect that such a move would be fraught with controversy because, after all, these are struggling people trying to eke out an existence for their families.
Dealing with squatting is a delicate issue because it concerns poor, mostly uneducated, and jobless Jamaicans. Eviction is seen as heartless. So even though there is a move to criminalise squatting via amendment of the Trespass Act, it is meandering its way through the Parliament.
Removing squatters as a part of a disaster preparedness plan must be seen as averting crisis and reducing the vulnerability facing these settlements. Squatting is deeply rooted in poverty, so the ultimate solution to this seeming intractable problem is to create effective programmes that can help to alleviate poverty by allowing the poor to exploit their most important asset - labour.