Thu | May 24, 2018

Martin Henry | Peter, Andrew, land and justice

Published:Sunday | February 4, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

I love the talk. Now for the walk. That revolutionary walk. In the course of last week, both the leader of the Opposition and the prime minister made far-reaching statements about correcting the wrongs of history that have been heaped upon the mass of the Jamaican people.

If Dr Peter Phillips and Andrew Holness were not politicians first, second and third, we would be tempted to take their utterances at face value. But we've been there, heard that.

I'll get to what these leaders have been offering us in a minute. But last Tuesday, the Jamaican Parliament voted unanimously to extend the state of emergency in St James. The Gleaner reported, 'One voice against crime - 51 MPs vote to extend state of emergency.' The front-page story said, "Lawmakers yesterday voted unanimously to extend the state of public emergency in St James by three months, sending a strong signal to the criminal underworld that legislators were in unison as they approved a resolution to cramp the record murder rate in the parish.

"Fifty-one parliamentarians voted in support of extending the state of public emergency in St James until May 2. Eleven legislators were absent." A two-thirds majority is required for extension.

The prime minister told Parliament at the vote: "People are seeing that the Government is serious, the Opposition is serious about crime. There is an evolving consensus that we must tackle this thing." Government and Opposition, JLP and PNP, having long met in the political middle, agree on more than they would like us to believe out of raw and ruinous political competition.

 

Land ownership programme

 

One of Peter Phillips' first public actions after he became president of the PNP and leader of the Opposition 10 months ago was to establish a National Land Ownership Commission within the party. A news release said the objective of the commission was "to undertake a full review of the existing land-titling system and land-occupancy mechanisms and to recommend strategies to give effect to a radical, cost-effective and timely land ownership programme in Jamaica".

This would create an ownership society whereby all Jamaicans can obtain registered titles to their properties. Phillips noted then that too many Jamaicans remain outside of land ownership through no direct fault of their own.

The punchline in his justification for establishing the Land Ownership Commission was: "When slavery ended, the farmers were compensated, but the slaves were not, and no framework was put in place to have them own the land on which they had worked. This is a blot on history and the commission will, through its mandate, seek to correct that blot."

I had my jaded suspicions. And with good reason, which other Jamaicans also have from our hard experiences. But last Sunday, the party president was back on the subject of land injustice at the National Executive Council meeting out at Vere Technical High School in one of the sugar belts of Jamaica where people have been most excluded from land.

Much of Jamaica's current problems are rooted in the negative socio-economic spin-offs from the inequitable distribution of land, a situation that started with the abolition of slavery, The Comrade leader told the gathering. And: "There is no doubt in the collective view of the shadow Cabinet that this problem of the unequal distribution of land, which has existed from 1838 till now, 180 years, has been at the heart of much of the social and economic inequality in the country," he went on.

 

Marginal existence

 

Dr Phillips cited the situation in the agriculture sector, where some 40 per cent of Jamaican farmers work land to which they have no title. Unable to raise funds from financial institutions, these farmers cannot access the technology necessary to improve efficiency and scale up their operations to be globally competitive and are forced to exist on the margins of the economy, confined to a life of subsistence and poverty.

Turning to squatter settlements, he said, "There is no doubt either that this problem of access to land is the underpinning behind the fact that some 30 per cent of our people live in so-called squatter communities - 700,000 Jamaicans in squatter communities, mainly with substandard housing, where people feel compelled to steal water and light and other services and where the communities develop this kind of contact, if not allegiance, to the criminal underworld by virtue of the sheer illegality surrounding their existence."

"Jamaica cannot go on like this," Phillips told his party, as he announced that the shadow Cabinet had received the first report from the National Land Commission outlining a strategic path forward, which "will ensure that the next PNP administration will reverse this foundation of inequality resting in the unequal distribution of land." We don't know when that will be. The JLP Government should seize good ideas from wherever they come and run wid dem.

I don't know if Dr Phillips will be happy to hear that the Five-Year Independence Plan, 1963-1968 (which I have quoted endlessly in this space), which was presented by Minister of Development and Welfare Edward Seaga on July 24, 1963, began with the same analysis of historical injustices and had a detailed section on a Land Reform Programme.

He should be happy to hear, as the late John Maxwell so disdainfully informed me before he was late, that the Independence Development Plan had been developed by the Central Planning Unit under the previous Norman Manley government that had anticipated winning the April 1962 general election but didn't.

The Plan, John insisted, was used wholesale by the Bustamante JLP government without sufficient acknowledgement. Mr Seaga had a different view and addressed the matter in his presentation. He had examined, he said, the draft of the Plan that had been formulated by the previous government, found that "it did not represent sufficient of the concepts and goals of the present government", and so a decision was made "to write a plan of development based on the goals, concepts, policies and projects devised by this Government".

But, "it is fairly obvious," Mr Seaga noted then, "... that both governments are wedded in certain fundamental beliefs, certain fundamental beliefs in the system of Government, and have things in common in policies and programmes", and so there would be a "certain amount of overlapping".

 

Political war

 

The political warring that followed, reaching its highest heights when Edward Seaga led the JLP and Michael Manley led the PNP, derailed the development of the country in fundamental ways.

Old man Victor Henry, 94, was laid to rest in Walkerswood, St Ann, yesterday. An unsung hero, unknown outside his community. But when I interviewed him and other veterans of Walkerswood community development a decade and a half ago, I learned that they had staged a land hunger march in the area during the 1938 labour upheavals. Then they went on to establish a cooperative farm at Lucky Hill in neighbouring St Mary, out of which Walkerswood Caribbean Foods eventually grew.

The PNP, launched on September 18, 1938, partly sprang up out of these agitations. Mr Seaga, in tabling the Independence Development Plan in 1963, while addressing the land-reform programme, said, "I remember reading the testimony of the leader of the Opposition [Norman Manley] before the Moyne Commission on this very particular matter. I don't know what his thoughts are on the matter today, but his thoughts on the matter at the time were very interesting." Today, 55 years after 1963, 80 years after 1938, 180 years after Full Free, Mr Manley's current successor is back on "this very particular matter", unresolved in any fundamental way.

Meanwhile, Andrew Holness, as prime minister, is boldly advocating "justice for all".

Addressing the St James Chapter of the Lay Magistrates' Association, Holness told them and the rest of us that the Government takes the role of protecting the rights of all citizens seriously. We laugh through tears. The prime minister noted that in dealing with the incidence of crime, the Government is ensuring that there will be justice for all.

"If it is that we are truly seeking justice in order to get peace, then it can't be justice for just some. It must be justice for all because when we truly start to prosecute all crimes, when we truly start to look at all the infractions and not make exceptions because of status, connection, power, or influence, that is when we truly have the rule of law. If we are going to deal with criminality, we must deal with it at all levels. So, yes, the pinnacle of the criminal pyramid is the crime of murder, but if you consider it, it is supported by all types of other crimes going down to the base, and the base, of course, sometimes ... is the simple public-order infractions."

Fine speeches. Land for the landless. Justice for all. Regurgitation. We struggle to hold the vomit as we wait for the decisive actions.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.