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Squatting: Land Policy and Distribution

Flooding the land on which squatters have unlawfully occupied, conjures up some of history’s most oppressive episodes. The first time a PPP government engaged in this activity Mrs. Janet Jagan privately expressed her appalled dismay. The reason she gave was articulated in one newspaper’s editorial yesterday. Flooding was used as a weapon after slavery against the land hungry victims of that era. At those times, land was needed not only for accommodation but for growing crops to consume and sell to aid physical survival. I am therefore surprised at the use of flooding against squatters once again. Of course, the Government may not have been directly responsible. But the fact that one of its agencies obviously made the decision to flood the area, it is the Government that has to take responsibility. While the Government has not acknowledged such, the President has moved with alacrity to address the problem, while at the same time urging the Success squatters “to do it the right way.”

Squatting cannot be condoned for many reasons, the least being that it is illegal. It would be no surprise that those who have made significant efforts to acquire land and construct homes are not in sympathy with squatters, who also are frequently allowed to jump the queue. They receive advanced consideration as against those who have been waiting for years for the allocation of land.  Also, squatting also invites not only those who are genuinely in need, but also undesirable elements who pose threats not only to other squatters but to surrounding communities. In news reports these concerns have been expressed.

One of the most successful policies of past PPP/C governments from 1992 onwards continuously until the end of its term of office in 2015 was its housing programme. It acquired and distributed land that had been owned by the State or one of its agencies, charged a ridiculously low price only for the cost of infrastructure and negotiated with banks for low interest loans. As was to be expected in policies which involved a distribution of resources, there were charges of discrimination, despite land being distributed in areas of both Indian and African occupation. There was little or no evidence offered of actual discrimination in the distribution of house lots.

These policies were implemented after decades of abandonment of any form of housing policy during the PNC era. In its last term of office (1985-1992) it abolished the Ministry of Housing and spent only a few hundred thousand dollars on housing. And squatters were, to use one of Burnham’s favourite words, “condignly” dealt with. Bulldozers were often used to demolish the pitifully small and flimsy structures put together by squatters. The housing situation became so dire that the then government was forced to close its eyes to the squatting at Sophia, especially since most of the squatters were perceived to be supporters of the PNC. In the end, it was the new PPP/C government in 1992 that agreed to regularise Sophia as a community and to give ownership to occupants, and supply water and electricity. The task was so difficult and complex that it took almost two decades to complete.

It befuddles the mind to understand why the incoming APNU+AFC administration in 2015 decided to abandon this winning policy of land distribution and implement instead a policy of itself constructing housing complexes which it would own and rent to tenants. This government take-over of what was essentially a public-private sector driven policy ended up where it was expected to end – in failure. The construction industry was substantially reduced in size, the banking industry lost business and Guyanese saw the dwindling of opportunities to own their own homes. It is not surprising, therefore, that with the virtual termination of land distribution for housing, squatting has resumed. Fortunately, land distribution is to resume.

The President mentioned in his address to the squatters the lack of equity in the land or building when they squat. Now that President Irfaan Ali is talking about equity, he must know that the entire land policy of the government needed to be reviewed since 1992. The existing policy, inherited from long before 1992, is to effect small scale distribution of agricultural land up to fifty acres by way of 10, 20 or 50 year leases. If the President follows the logic that he declared to the Success squatters, then he would discover that farmers are deprived of billions of dollars in equity in continuing the short-sighted policy of agricultural land distribution through leases and not actual ownership.

If legal ownership is passed for these and other lands, of which the State owns 90+ percent, owners would be able to access billions of dollars from lending agencies, most of which would enter the economy for productive purposes. The fear is that exploitation would take place, namely, that the land would be rented or sold at enormous profits. If either of these things happen, the tenant or purchaser would then begin to utilise the land for productive purposes. Everybody gains. No one loses. At the same the Government can address communally owned and other inherited and occupied land complained about by African communities.   

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