The squatter index

Published: Sunday | April 26, 2009



Cedric Wilson, Contributor

The recent revelation by Dr Horace Chang, Minister of Water and Housing, that one-third of the people in Jamaica are squatters, is no trivial matter. In fact, after 47 years of political independence, it is a national tragedy. And if we cannot see the connection between the level of violence in our society and squatting, then the tragedy is even more profound.

Long ago, Aristotle observed that "poverty is the parent of revolution and crime". There is a tendency for squatters to be treated with snobbery by sections of the Jamaican society. Squatters are sometimes viewed as "children of a lesser god"; as parasites intoxicated by a "freeness mentality". But it is important that the phenomenon be placed in its correct historical context.

When slavery was abolished, both ex-slaves and former slave owners were confronted with a gigantic dilemma: that of survival. The former slave owner faced the problem of keeping his plantation profitable. On the other hand, the ex-slave, who had little or no material possessions, faced the challenge of keeping his freedom. Psychologically, the plantation represented the worst kind of bondage imaginable and a place to be avoided at all costs.

It was, therefore, in the interest of the ruling class to keep the ex-slaves and their children landless. The logic was simple: the more landless peasants there were, the more labourers would be available for the plantations. Taxation and coercion under the pretext of the law were used unrelentingly by the planter class to keep ex-slaves 'enslaved'. This was the only way of keeping plantations profitable without transforming the structure of production.

Higher taxes

Tax on food and clothing for the poor was significantly higher than that paid by the planter class. The donkey, which was considered to be the poor man's transportation, faced steeper taxes than horses. The sale of goods produced on small farms, which was the main source of income for peasants, was associated with exorbitant market fees.

In addition, the rental charged to peasants was sometimes arbitrary and it was not unusual for tenants to be forced to pay sums beyond the amount legally required. Inexperienced land purchasers were also ripped off by the unscrupulous members of the elite who exploited their ignorance. It was not uncommon for peasants to be booted from properties they paid for with their sweat and tears because they were unable to provide proof of ownership. The vast majority of people had no voice. The political system of the day was controlled by the elite because only property owners were allowed to vote. Therefore, for ex-slaves, who faced a system that was hell-bent on stripping them of dignity, squatting was a defiant act of survival and a heroic embrace of freedom. It should not be forgotten that many of the people who took part in the Morant Bay Rebellion were squatters.

The human development index (HDI) is the most popular measure of development. It is derived from a country's performance on three indicators - income, life expectancy and education. But it is clear, that if Jamaica's development is to be properly assessed, there is a need for a 'Squatter Index'. Certainly, the level of squatting is an indication of how far we have travelled from slavery; how much progress we have made since Paul Bogle and George William Gordon were martyred; what we have achieved in terms of development since Independence in 1962.

Marcus Garvey was aware of the squatting problem and championed the cause of the disinherited masses. In his political manifesto in 1929, he identified the need for a law that would provide for "the building of model sanitary homes for the peasantry by a system of easy payments over a period of from ten to twenty years".

Later, with the emergence of Rastafari in the slums of western Kingston, the members of this subculture undertook a new approach to an old struggle. The two main pillars of Rastafari are the concept of African redemption and the embrace of the Emperor Haile Selassie as the black messiah.

Rastafari represents a spiritual warfare against a secular system. African redemption - the belief that the black man will return to the land he original came from - must have had its genesis in the frustration of squatters. And as such, they yearned for a new land in a faraway place.

The struggle of the squatters

The elevation of Haile Selassie to the position of divinity came from a rejection of the political system that was contrived to keep the masses poor. The struggle of the squatters is epitomised in the songs that exhort the people "to move out of Babylon".

However, it would be incorrect to say that nothing has been done about squatting since Independence. Back-a-wall, the worst slum in western Kingston, was transformed into Tivoli Gardens, a low-income housing development in the 1960s. Upon the rubbles of the northern section of Trench Town, a sprawling squatter community, Arnett Gardens (Concrete Jungle) was created in the 1970s.

The problem with low-income development of this sort is that politicians have seized the opportunity to erect impregnable political fortresses or 'garrisons'. Consequently, there is a tradition since Independence that low-income houses are not built primarily for the poor - they were built for narrow partisan-party interest.

The disturbing thing about squatter communities now is that, unlike squatters of Paul Bogle's day, there is no attempt to change the system by confronting it. Unlike the early brethren of Rastafari, there is no effort to change the system through spiritual renewal. Instead, today's squatters' focus is to change their position in the system, without addressing the system as a whole.

Much of the bloodshed and the tears we see today are from the disinherited and the disillusioned. And as long as the problem of squatting is shoved to the peripheries of the national agenda, as long as we fail to measure progress by the level of squatting, development will continue to elude us.

Cedric Wilson is an economist who specialises in market regulations. He may be contacted at conoswil@hotmail.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.