Editorial | Facing the challenge of squatting
Prevention, the saying goes, is better than cure, and is one of those gems that the security minister, Robert Montague, is likely to know well and is a principle to which, broadly, he should adhere. The idea is eminently sensible.
We note this in the context of Mr Montague’s recent declaration of his intention to dismantle squatter communities as part of his strategy for fighting crime. These and other types of informal settlements, he argues, are often havens for criminals and criminality. Their usual overcrowding, lack of infrastructure and heavy concentration of unemployed people supports, if not promotes, antisocial behaviour.
A major challenge for Mr Montague and Jamaican development planners concerned with reversing squatting and informal settlements is the scale of the problems. It has been estimated that perhaps a third of Jamaica’s 2.7 million people are squatters or live in informal settlements. There are scores of such communities.
But worse, they are being added and sometimes aided and abetted by politicians. Often, politicians or institutions of government turn a blind eye to the emergence of enlargement of such communities out of fear of alienating potential blocks of voters. And herein lies a test of Mr Montague’s declared resolve to tackle the problem and his plan, first within the Government’s broader social policy.
This week, for instance, this newspaper, as Mr Montague would be aware, reported the case of hundreds of people descending on lands in Old Harbour, St Catherine, near the middle-class community of Old Harbour Glades, marking lots for future homes. Some have erected shacks. Residents of Old Harbour Glades, understandably, are worried about what the development of a ramshackle community will do to their property values
No one is clear on how the movement started. It seems to have no official sanction. But there is a certain reality to the actions of the people who are ‘capturing’ the land exemplified in the explanation of her action by a woman who gave her name as Karen Stewart, who heard about and joined the fray.
She said: “How I look at it ... If I take a little piece (of the land) and build a little shed on it and anything happens, they (private owners if it is their property) can take their thing. But it is not private ... Government owns it. When Government comes in, we will have a chance because we already live on it.”
Largely, history is on her side. For it is usually the case that squatters resist and find support among politicians, sometimes for worthy reasons, but mostly with an eye on the ballot box. The development and expansion of a slum at Mona Commons, outside of the front entrance of the University Hospital of the West Indies, the English-speaking Caribbean’s premier teaching hospital, is a prime example. Indeed, it is the same calculation that inspires Ms Stewart at Old Harbour that underlay the actions of those people who last year, during the life of the previous administration, and with the connivance of local political activists, attempted to illegally settle land in Dallas Mountain, St Andrew.
Unmasked, Dallas Mountain failed. Old Harbour shouldn’t succeed. But there is still need for a broader policy for dealing with squatting and informal settlements, of which we wait to hear from the Government.