By: Shaliza Hassanali
Date: March 8th 2016
Source: Guardian Trinidad and Tobago
In the last eight months, hundreds of squatters have encroached on State lands in the Sangre Grande and Point Fortin areas.
The land grabbing in these two districts has now become a major concern.
The fact that the Commissioner of State Lands’ position became vacant last May with the retirement of Ian Fletcher has only intensified the squatting problem.
Yesterday, Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries, Clarence Rambharat confirmed in a text message that Clyde Watche has been appointed to act as Commissioner of State Lands.
Watche, who has the power to contain squatting, yesterday refused to take a call from the T&T Guardian.
His secretary, who identified herself as Ms Sonny, advised our newspaper to speak to the ministry’s communication officer Brent Zephyrine, who did not respond to a voice message on his cell phone.
Weeks before last September 7 general election, squatters started invading forested areas and existing squatting communities in Valencia/Sangre Grande/Matura which has a population of 10,000 land grabbers, while Point Fortin is another district in which they have settled.
In 2010, former CEO of the Land Settlement Agency (LSA) Dr Allen Sammy had estimated the squatting population in T&T to be 200,000.
Of the 200,000 Sammy stated that 50,000 squatting families live on State lands.
Last July, former minister of lands Jairam Seemungal had reported that there were 350 squatting sites in T&T and over 10,000 squatters in the Sangre Grande district alone.
In the last week, the T&T Guardian visited Dam Road Extention and Osborne Road in Point Fortin which showed a proliferation of new squatters who erected crude galvanised and wooden structures overnight.
At Kangalee and along the Valencia stretch new houses also dot the landscape, while there has been an expansion of makeshift homes at Bois Bande and Vega de Oropouche in Sangre Grande.
There are close to 20 sites on which new squatters have encroached.
Leading up to a general election, people have a tendency to indiscriminately grab lands because they feel no action will be taken against them, Guardian understands.
It happened in 2010 when the People’s Partnership jumped into the general election race.
There was a mad rush for lands in Cashew Gardens in Longdenville, where the police had to be called out to remove them.
“In the last few months we have seen hundreds new homes being built on these existing sites. These squatters are building make-shifts houses faster than the Housing Development Corporation,” the source said.
Yesterday, former chairman of the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and environmentalist Dr Allan Bachan said while squatters were prohibited from entering protected forested areas in Valencia there had been an increase in squatting communities in Sangre Grande and the Matura districts.
“The real person to speak about this issue is the Commissioner of State Lands. It is under his jurisdiction that squatting falls.
“The commissioner has the ability to go in there and address these issues of squatting. A lot of these squatters are non-Trinidad nationals who come from Guyana, Africa and some small Caribbean islands, and work in gas stations, security firms and supermarkets for the minimum wage.
“I know for a fact that the squatting population has been increasing in Sangre Grande, Matura and the Valencia Stretch,” Bachan said.
Some of the squatters also live within near quarries in Valencia and Matura that operate illegally, Bachan said.
“They protect these illegal quarrying activities and stay out of the public’s sight,” Bachan said.
Bachan said up to last year the EMA had worked in tandem with the Mineral Advisory Committee to identify spots for quarrying.
“However, one of the challenges was the invasion of squatters. We have to address the issue of squatting. Now that people are losing their jobs squatting will no doubt get out of control,” he added.
Several calls to forest conservator Johnny Seepersad’s cellphone went unanswered.
Housing and Urban Development Minister Marlene McDonald under whose purview LSA falls did not respond to a text message also.
According to the State Lands Act 57:01, “the commissioner shall have the management of all lands of the State and shall be charged with the prevention of squatting and encroachment upon the same and of spoil and injury to the woods and forests on such lands, and shall superintend the settlement and allotment of State lands and the laying out of village lots in such districts as the President from time to time directs.”
It also states that “the commissioner shall also take possession of, and shall be charged with the care and letting and the collection of the rents of, all lands which may belong or escheat to, or which by virtue of any Act may be forfeited to and become vested in, the State.”
The LSA is authorised under the State Land Regularisation of Tenure Act, number 25 of 1998, “to prevent and contain further squatting on State lands and to regularise eligible existing squatters.”
“A person who is eligible for regularisation must have occupied a dwelling house on the property prior to January 1, 1998 and applied for a COC before 2000.”
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