Protected areas, private lands now under threat from squatters
Neither cash nor talk will move them. They are squatters, firmly planted on prime government lands in various parts of the island. Despite cash inducements by state agencies to some, they continue to pose a danger to life, property and the environment.
Minister of Land, Environment and Climate Change Robert Pickersgill, during a recent Gleaner Editors' Forum, said the Government must be allowed to enforce the law against informal settlements.
"Our experience is that when we give them money to help them to move, they take it and go right back. The State has been assisting them, and then they go right back."
Having received the relocation funds, the squatters often step up their game by erecting opulent structures, raising families, setting up shops, as if they have the right of ownership.
Now government officials and technocrats from related agencies are scratching their collective heads trying to find a way to replace the concrete structures to areas earmarked for relocation.
According to Pickersgill, the squatters sometimes have access to family lands but chose to establish themselves on lands owned by the Government or private individuals.
In other instances, squatters would relocate to more suitable settlements.
"The Squatter Management Unit in the Ministry of Housing is a response to informal development. They are to move and provide people with infrastructure and so on. People who are living in informal settlements do not have the infrastructure like water and sewerage," the minister said.
He explained that much of the response of the National Housing Development Corporation was to formalise settlements. He pointed to the squatter community along the Palisadoes Road in east Kingston as a prime problem area; however, he did not specify which set of squatters were provided with cash help.
Chief executive officer of the National Environment and Planning Agency, Peter Knight, said the Palisadoes squatters were of grave concern to the agency.
"We have been working with the Airport Authority to remove squatters off those mangroves. You would be surprised how many persons are squatting there. If you go into the community just after you leave the airport and heading towards Harbour View, several persons are squatting there," Knight also told journalists at the forum.
According to him, discussions have been under way with the commissioner of lands and the matter has been turned over to the Squatter Management Unit.
"We have to try and remove them because all of that mangrove is going to be destroyed. And if you allow one community it just keep expanding," he stated.
However, last week The Sunday Gleaner visited the area in search of the squatters. The only occupants seen were individuals in a fishing village.
A search of the mangroves going towards the Yacht Club and the Caribbean Maritime Institute yielded no squatters.
Dr Morais Guy, who has the housing portfolio in the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing, said he was unaware of monetary inducements paid to squatters, but added his voice to the gravity of the situation in protected areas.
"We have not engaged in monetary inducement but we have a responsibility to prevent it, identify areas where it is taking place, enforce, and cauterise it," said Guy in an interview with The Sunday Gleaner.
He admitted that the work of the agencies was challenged by the unavailability of personnel on the ground, and Government was forced to rely on GIS technology to get an idea where areas were once green.
"We have a little collaboration with the Ministry of Land, Water and Climate Change but it is not as fulsome as we would hope. But the challenge is huge," said the minister.
As if squatting on private lands was not enough, Guy said some private landowners who have abandoned their properties for years are now the victims of mass squatting, and they want Government to purchase the properties to take the problems off their hands.
"It's almost a shakedown, but private landowners have a responsibility to develop their lands and not just leave it like that. That said, it does not give anyone the right to capture people's lands and take ownership," he said.
Guy informed that the largest number of squatters are in the parishes of Trelawny, St James, Westmoreland and St Ann, and said there was a direct relationship between the squatting and the tourism towns.