The problem of squatting in Jamaica
Published: Sunday | May 24, 2009
ONE Of the most distressing problems facing Jamaica today is the illegal occupation of land or 'squatting'. The internationally accepted definition of squatting is 'the illegal occupation of land or housing'.
The Global Development Research Centre defines a squatter settlement as "a residential area which has developed without legal claims to the land and/or permission from the concerned authorities to build; as a result of their illegal or semi-legal status, infrastructure and services are usually inadequate".
The causes are several, but the most frequently given are: inability of successive Governments to meet the needs of urban growth by providing land for affordable housing to satisfy the needs of our citizenry; the rate of population growth; the differences in income between urban and rural workers; and the attractiveness of urban lifestyles.
To secure opportunities for themselves and their families, thousands of individuals, in violation of the law and ownership rights, are seizing land and erecting makeshift dwellings across our country. Squatter settlements are all over Jamaica - on hillsides, roadsides, gully banks, inner-city areas, government land, and private lands.
Dr Jimmy Tindigarukayo of the UWI in 2005 conducted a policy assessment of squatters in Jamaica and identified five factors which he considered as having aggravated the squatting problem. These are:
Availability of idle lands and
As more people move into or set up new settlements, successive Governments have found it difficult to remove them or protect private and government land from being taken over. This unplanned approach of settlements contributes to the following:
Exposure to hazards
A haven for criminals
Reduction in land values
The structures erected by the squatters generally violate land use regulations as well as the basic health standards. Usually these settlements are more often a chaos of densely-packed shacks (although in some instances we have a few mansions) lacking the most basic utilities; such as running water, sanitary disposal facilities, and electricity. They are generally health and fire hazards.
Additionally, since squatting involves seizure of both government and private lands, it presents a serious challenge to the Government in its ability to maintain law and order. Even more serious is that too often squatting is taking place on sensitive lands where protection of the environment is essential to development, investment, and economic growth.
As the number of squatters increases, their influence and resistance to removal grows, and as officials demonstrate their inability to deal with the issues, more squatters will move in to take advantage of the situation.
Pace and volume
A permanent dwelling in a squatter community in St Catherine. Studies reveal that in less than six years, there has been a nineteen per cent increase in the number of squatter settlements in Jamaica. - File
The squatting problem is not only seriously affecting the physical development of our country, but also our economic and social stability.
The pace and volume of squatting in Jamaica has increased enormously in recent years. In 2003 the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Technology published a survey showing that there were approximately 635 squatter settlements across Jamaica with approximately 76 per cent of these on government lands.
More recently, a study by the Ministry of Water and Housing identified a total of 754 settlements. These studies reveal that in less than six years we have had a 19 per cent increase in the number of squatter settlements. Further, the housing ministry's study identified three types of squatting in Jamaica: agricultural, residential, and commercial. These three types accounted for Minister Chang's recent revelation of approximately 900,000 squatters.
The study also estimated that 20 per cent of Jamaica's population reside in squatter settlements. With a population of just under 2.7 million this would result in 540,000 residential squatters.
An issue of this magnitude must be placed in the top priorities for consideration by the Government. Internationally, there have been various approaches to the problem of squatting. Countries with large rural frontiers have used these to address the issue of squatting.
Sound agricultural policies
What these countries have done is utilise sound agricultural policies, which reduce, not eliminate, the problem of squatting. They have implemented policies that encourage agricultural settlements; homesteading, pre-emption rights, or subsidisation.
Additionally, history has demonstrated that possession (as the saying goes 'possession is nine tenths of the law') even if illegal or tenuous, can win legalisation when it asserts a moral claim that is backed by the pressures of numbers.
Since this appears inevitable, it is best for the Government of Jamaica to put in place a definite policy on squatting, a policy to prevent, control, contain, direct, or assist squatting. Which approach is best, will depend on the individual squatter settlement.
Nevertheless, a policy vacuum will only facilitate and add to the gathering chaos with all its environmental, economic, social, and political issues.
Victor Cummings is a lecturer in urban and regional planning at the University of Technology.