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Buy back idle lands - Government urged to acquire lands for distribution to 'landless' Jamaicans

Published:Wednesday | May 20, 2015 | 12:00 AMGary Spaulding
Dr Jermaine McCalpin, lecturer at the University of the West Indies.
Mike Henry, member of parliament for Central Clarendon.
Dr Verene Shepherd, professor at the University of the West Indies

The Government is being urged to engage in a comprehensive land-redevelopment exercise in order to address unrelieved landlessness among Jamaicans.

But lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and member of the National Reparations Committee Dr Jermaine McCalpin has emphasised that in doing so, the Government needs to steer clear of what he characterises as the Zimbabwe approach.

"We will have to do redistribution, but let us be clear on how it happened in Zimbabwe," said McCalpin yesterday during a Gleaner Editors' forum held at the company's Kingston offices.

McCalpin noted that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe angered European nations when he sequestered lands instead of redistributing them en masse to the people.

"That's not where I think we need to go," he said.

Land reform in Zimbabwe officially began in 1980 with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement aimed at more equitably distributing land between black subsistence farmers and white Zimbabweans of European ancestry who had traditionally enjoyed superior political and economic status.

The programme's targets in the African state were intended to alter the ethnic balance of land ownership.

The Reparations Committee has noted that "the issue of landlessness, and, by extension, the social, political, and economic exclusion faced by post-slavery Jamaicans, is one of the harsh realities of modern-day Jamaica."

Like Jamaica, inequalities in land ownership were inflated by growing overpopulation, depletion of overutilised tracts, and escalating poverty in subsistence areas along with the underutilisation of land on commercial farms.

At independence from the United Kingdom in 1980, the Zimbabwean authorities were empowered to initiate the necessary reforms as long as land was bought and sold on a willing basis. The British government would finance half the cost.

In the late 1990s, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair terminated the arrangement when funds available from Margaret Thatcher's administration were exhausted, repudiating all commitments to land reform.

Zimbabwe responded by embarking on a "fast-track" redistribution campaign, forcibly confiscating white farms without compensation.

McCalpin suggested that Jamaica's land-redistribution process could start by retracing ownership.

"Concerning land, we will have to go the route of redistribution of hundreds of thousands of acres of Crown lands. There is no two ways about it."

Chair of the Reparations Committee Professor Verene Shepherd suggested that Government could purchase idle lands in private hands.

"They will have to negotiate to allow people who have lands that they are not using to make them available to people who need land," Shepherd said, echoing a sentiment expressed by McCalpin.

"Government should buy back some of that land and redistribute," added Shepherd. "We have lost that sense of moral responsibility, where lands can be distributed without monetary exchange."

Shepherd suggested that if landowners are averse to anything but monetary exchange, they must make the property available at a reasonable price to ensure that Jamaicans have access to land.

She conceded that in 2015, it was unrealistic to take over lands that are owned by others.

"Negotiation has to be the way. Appeal to people who have too much land they are not even using."

Central Clarendon Member of Parliament Mike Henry emphasised that economic realities must be placed at the centre of any move for reparation as it relates to land distribution.

Henry disclosed that he had established an economic advisory committee to guide and influence the provision of land and the requisite wherewithal to empower poor Jamaicans economically.

He said Government should approach owners in a non-confrontational manner to purchase lands.

"The ownership of lands is one of the issues that declines our growth in a real way," he said. "We need to take the lands that belong to the National Land Agency to economically develop people around the value of land."

Added Henry: "We can't have successful land distribution without the ability of people to grow and produce, so it's a development process that is structured."