Editorial | Golding politicising Old Pera dispute
There may indeed be legitimate issues to be debated, and resolved, with respect to the community’s right of access to the beach and adjacent portions of land at Old Pera, St Thomas, that has been the subject of a simmering dispute between residents and the family of former parliamentarian Pearnel Charles.
However, having frontally inserted himself into the quarrel, the Opposition leader, Mark Golding, should be wary of leaving the impression of his and his party’s endorsement of hostility to owners asserting their property rights, once antagonism thereto serves a populist political end. If that were the case, it would fuel Jamaica’s long-standing problem of squatting, without adequately addressing the genuinely troubling question of inadequate ownership of land, and, as is partially at issue in this matter, access to beaches.
Mr Golding, should he be frank, will acknowledge that the major takeaway from his Old Pera remarks by many, and perhaps most supporters of the People’s National Party (PNP) is likely to have been his a priori assumption that the rights of the Old Pera community “are being infringed by the alleged owner asserting dominion over the property and restricting access to the beach and the island,” and his accusation of East St Thomas MP Dr Michelle Charles siding with “her family’s commercial interest” rather than “standing up for the rights of the community”.
Dr Charles is Pearnel Charles’ daughter. She found herself in the invidious position of attempting to explain to angry constituents the proposed tourism development plans for the area, including the disputed lands, and her father’s reasons for limiting access to the property.
THE ISSUE AT HAND
At issue is a bit of beachfront land, and a small offshore island, which Mr Charles says was once linked to the mainland, but became separated in recent years because of erosion. Shallow waters mean that the island can be waded to.
Pearnel Charles insists that he is the owner of the mainland property and the island. Dr Charles says that the information is publicly available in the title records.
A dispute developed recently when Mr Charles – who retired as Speaker of the House prior to last September’s general election – called an end to the informal hosting by an apparently community-minded entrepreneur of an adventure-style outdoor camp on the island. He also put up ‘private property’ and ‘no entry’ signs on the mainland property and on the island. Residents were put out. They had piggybacked on the camp by selling goods to the ‘adventurers’ and hosting entertainment activities. Some also found employment at the camp.
Understandably, they were angered by Pearnel Charles’ decision, which the former politician said was taken because of environmental concerns and of the person who started the venture. Residents, however, have not been assuaged. Mr Charles believes some community members were complicit in the burning of 500 acres of sugar cane on his nearby farm. The no-entry signs, Dr Charles said, were intended as deterrents to future arson.
The matter has now morphed into questions of who owns what and what rights the community has to the land and access to the beach. The dispute is overlaid by partisan politics, as was apparent recently when Mr Golding, supported by PNP activists, and Dr Charles, a member of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), vied for minds at Old Pera.
One prominent PNP activist from the area was adamant that the island does not belong to Mr Charles, but to the “people of Old Pera”. Mr Golding wants the Public Defender to determine “what is the extent of the private rights that can be asserted, given the general access the community has enjoyed to the beach and to the island” over time. At the same time, Mr Golding said, it was not his intention to “disturb any plans for the development of the property, if there are any”.
We suspect that any legal resolution of this matter will turn, in part, on whether Mr Charles can prove, by title or otherwise, that he is the owner of the property, or the community being able to show the contrary. It might be possible, too, for Old Pera residents to make a case, in accordance with the Prescription Act, of having enjoyed consistent, uninterrupted and unrestrained right of easement over the property to, and enjoyment of, the beach for at least two decades. The community (it only takes five people) could petition and convince the Beach Control Authority to take the matter to court for settlement.
The Gleaner, however, would prefer a mature discussion and negotiations between Pearnel Charles and the community that result in an agreement that respects the rights of private property, community interests and the long-term development of Old Pera, and, more generally, St Thomas – a parish whose development has lagged behind the rest of the country. The new eastern highway, now under construction, could be a catalyst for the reversal of the parish’s fortunes.
Politicisation of the matter will not lend readily to our preferred outcome. Neither will it assist in solving the deeper problems relating to landownership and community development, whose solutions have eluded Jamaica for too long.