Editorial | Centuries-old quest to own a piece of land
As we commemorate Emancipation Day today, it seems incomprehensible that the quest for land continues to be such a contentious issue in Jamaica. Just as how freed slaves craved, in 1838, to own the land on which they had toiled, so, today, landless folk are clamouring for their share of the Earth’s bounty.
An argument can be made that more Jamaicans are currently in search of land in much the same way as the 300,000 freed slaves set out to do back then. Freed from their bondage, the former slaves believed that justice demanded that they be given land to start their new lives and go about building their families. Owning land would afford them security in a new world where they had no access to any other resources, but it wasn’t so easy, as history recalls – the period was described by former Education Minister Burchell Whiteman as “a long twilight of unfulfilled hope”.
Among the varying degrees of land tenure in Jamaica, squatting has emerged as one of the most contentious. A practice whereby persons move on to unoccupied land and build homes or cultivate, squatting has become deeply entrenched in Jamaica. In some instances, generations have encroached upon the same land. It is a practice that festers conflict and has negative consequences such as the dangers associated with living on riverbeds and in gully areas. There are an estimated 700,000 Jamaicans caught in the squatting imbroglio.
INCREASE IN LAND DISPUTES
Even though our governments have recognised that it is desirable for the majority of Jamaicans to be given an affordable and legal path to land ownership, the land policy has been incoherent and has shifted focus from one administration to the other. Some of the proposals have had great merit. For instance, one idea was for the Government to identify lands it owns in every parish and to distribute them by way of reversible lease. There were programmes like Project Land Lease, which favoured an integrated approach to land distribution for farmers. But here we are in 2020, confronted with the reality that nearly three-quarters of a million people have to resort to squatting.
As if to demonstrate that we have not progressed much since Emancipation, we continue to see an increase in land disputes, including protests over eviction threats within hotspots in St Thomas, Clarendon, and St Elizabeth.
The squabble over land has fomented violence and resulted in bloodshed, shattered lives, and broken dreams. In the tourist town of Negril, for example, there have been several deaths attributed to land disputes, and many of these have remained unsolved, giving a black eye to the town and discouraging prospects of investment.
What is disappointing is the fact that there seems to be no mediation agency in the Government capable of sitting down with the disputing parties and negotiating a settlement. The lid is usually blown off these land disputes when people decide to take to the streets and bare their souls. Their disputes are only dealt with under the arc lights and glare of television cameras.
Small farmers, who are the bedrock of rural communities, are often embroiled in conflicts about land ownership or land distribution. They are very eloquent in expressing the pressure that they are under to take care of their families and their need for security of tenure. And as we reflect on Emancipation, it is fitting to draw inspiration from our ancestors who endured hardships during slavery and emerged from those challenges with the spirit of persistence and resilience.
We suggest that a way must be found to address land reform in a comprehensive and consistent manner to reduce the conflicts and distress over land distribution. We owe it to our ancestors to settle these matters by making the law work to facilitate, sell, lease, or, by any other means, dispose of idle government lands.