Archive for category Corruption
I smiled at the page three photo in another newspaper of the Prime Minister holding hands with recently-dismissed CLICO Chairman, Gerald Yetming, at a UNC meeting in Debe on Tuesday 23 June 2015. As serious as the situation is, I just couldn’t help myself.
Yetming was a UNC Minister of Finance during the Panday administration and had been appointed on 28 September 2010 as Chairman of CL Financial Ltd, the parent company of the ‘CLICO group’ being bailed-out by the State.
I declined many requests for comment on this controversial episode, since something about it did not seem quite right. The actual CLICO dismissals were incredible to my mind, not only because there did not seem to be any conflict between the stipulations in the CBTT’s 3 June Press Release and the reported beneficiaries – that is explained in the sidebar. It is even more bizarre when one considers that Yetming, in whom all confidence was apparently lost after allegedly-unauthorised payments to former CLICO Directors, still serves as Chairman of the parent company, CL Financial Ltd.
There is a widely-held view that the CL Financial chiefs should not be recovering any of their money from this huge collapse before the completion of the Colman Commission and the publication of its Report. I share the public concern that no money should be paid to the persons who were in charge of that sinking ship. Not one cent. Nothing should be paid to the CLF chiefs until we have had the proper opportunity to consider the findings of the Colman Commission. Even with its severe limitations, that Colman Report would be our closest opportunity to understand this epic financial crime. To pay out money to those Directors and Officers who were responsible before the Report is published would be reckless in the extreme and jeopardises the public interest. Read the rest of this entry »
SIDEBAR: The Minister responds
This is a short video (courtesy of TV6) in which the Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, responds to questions on the occupation of State lands in Couva by SIS Ltd, one of the main financiers of the Peoples Partnership.
The ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is being implemented by the Land Settlement Agency (LSA), has now been redefined in such stark terms that I have decided to call it by a more appropriate title ‘Land for Everybody’.
The previous article set out the main points of the revised program. That detrimental law was approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3rd June. Although we have now heard that the new law to amend the State Lands 1998 Act was withdrawn just before the close of our Parliament on Friday 12th June 2015, we are also being told that it will be approved if the Peoples Partnership is returned to office after the national elections in September.
This change to our country’s squatter regularisation law is therefore now being held out as an expansive election promise to regularise the status of some 60,000 landless people. That proposed program is a severely detrimental one which will likely lead to greater problems in the important question of our country’s human settlement policy. It is therefore necessary to highlight the dangers this new ‘Land for Everybody‘ program poses to our collective interests.
The Minister of Land and Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, gave several interviews which attempted to rebut my criticisms, so it is important that that these fundamental issues be properly understood. The public interest demands nothing less.
Food security is that elusive state in which we can feed ourselves at a decent standard of nourishment and at an affordable price, without heavy reliance on imported food. The very issue of how food security is defined is hotly debated, but it is clear that we are far away from even the simple one I offered.
In March 2012 the then Ministry of Agriculture, Land & Marine Resources published its Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015. The major goal of that Action Plan was to halve the country’s annual $4.0 Billion food import bill. Yet in March 2014, the Food Production Minister, Senator Devant Maharaj, stated that the food import bill had been reduced by only 2% since 2010. That is a sobering reflection on how serious is the challenge of moving to some significant degree of food security, even for an administration with substantial links in the agricultural sector.
The significant reduction of our food import bill will require a flexible plan, with dedicated implementation and continuous monitoring. The one inescapable requirement is for farmers to have access to land of suitable quantity, quality and location. Without a good supply of land, no food security plan can succeed.
The issue is a long-term one, so it is clear from the failure to achieve the targets that a deeper commitment of resources and monitoring is needed if we are to improve our collective position. The Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015 is now up for thorough review which must include serious input from the public and stakeholders.
Shiraz Khan, President of the Trinidad United Farmers’ Association, has spoken out about the disastrous land use policies now unfolding and I have also heard Omardath Maharaj join the calls for a holistic discussion of agriculture policy.
What is the policy?
We are reliably informed that the new ‘Land for the Landless’ policy was approved by Cabinet on 19th March 2015, but there is no clarity as to whether this policy conforms to the existing 1992 Land Policy. The recently-approved policy ought to be subordinate to the wider Land Policy, which states at page 9 –
“4. LAND USE POLICY
4.2 The New Land Policy proposes:
(a) that the existing system of land use zoning be strengthened to ensure that prime agricultural land is not mis-managed or converted to non-agricultural uses except on the basis of a significant spatial or economic development rationale…”
It is imperative that our country’s human settlement policies take proper account of the need to preserve our limited supply of arable land, so that we can maintain some degree of food security.
The critical point is that our total supply of land is very limited, due to the tiny size of our country. The supply of arable land which has not been developed is even more limited, so the choices are stark. There is not enough land for us to continue with this reckless policy of land distribution or large-scale building of houses with gardens. To continue with those policies would be watching a disaster unfold before our very eyes.
I have heard occasional statements from the HDC or Housing Ministry, in this and previous administrations, but that is merely to mention a major issue. This is a serious issue with dire long-term consequences for our society and a proper, wide-ranging policy review is urgently required. That review must include the 2002 Housing Policy, the 2003 UWI Report on the future of Caroni lands, the 1992 Land Policy and the Land for the Landless policy.
How many people will be affected by this policy?
There was some dispute over numbers, with the PM claiming that 30,000 squatters were to be regularised, the Minister of Land & Marine Resources doubling that to 60,000, all while the LSA website states that there are 250,000 squatters.
At one point, the official rebuttal seemed to be that there were 60,000 households with 250,000 inhabitants, but since the three cited statements were referring to ‘squatters’, that line has now been abandoned. We are now told that the intention is to regularise 60,000 of an estimated total of 250,000 ‘squatters’.
How are the 60,000 eligible persons to be selected?
So, which 60,000 people are to be regularised out of the 250,000? How is that selection to be made? Even after all this defensive talk, I am not at all clear on that.
Will the decisive point be the date of application or the length of time a squatter community has been established? The date-based approach would have some legal weight, given that squatters’ rights have usually accrued in accordance with the period of occupation. To my mind, that would be a weak basis on which to proceed, given the shortage of land and variety in its quality.
In the alternative would the choices of communities to be regularised be based on an assessment of alternative uses or land value? What role would the fertility of the soil play in making these important decisions? If we are to have a reasonable chance of tackling the food security issue, it is critical that these factors play an important part in making these decisions. That is not negotiable.
Finally, one has to mention the elephant in the room. Could it be that the selection of those 60,000 squatters is a political one? Are marginal constituencies to be favoured? Is that a possible outcome we ought to guard against? Which are the constituencies in which the selected communities are located?
The Bill to amend the State Lands Act 1998 comprised 24 pages and we need to note that 20 of those pages was an expansive list covering at least 500 areas or districts in our country. I quipped ‘Charlotteville to Los Iros‘, but the point is that with so expansive a list of areas, just about anywhere could be eligible for regularisation. You see?
The point of how these critical selections are being made is one which must be answered as soon and as clearly as possible.
Who qualifies as ‘landless’?
SIDEBAR: The LSA’s abortive meeting with JCC
In March 2015, the LSA wrote informally to seek dialogue with JCC on this revised ‘Land for the Landless’ program and we responded by requesting an agenda and a formal invitation. Despite our constant efforts, we are still awaiting a response.
This is the most damaging part of this proposed policy shift, with the new income levels having shifted to a monthly maximum of $30,000, together with the elimination of ‘disadvantaged’ as a decisive criteria having the combined impact of making these scarce lands available to anyone. The fact is that a family with a monthly income in the $30,000 can readily qualify for a mortgage in the $1.6-1.7M range and there are plenty of good-quality homes in that price range for sale in our country.
The CSO’s 2009 data on monthly Household Income shows a national average in the $8,000 range. Yet we have a Minister, supported by his professional staff, advancing a policy which is seeking to extend a program intended for the benefit of our neediest citizens to just about anyone.
One can only wonder what was the research on which this bizarre policy was based.
This is no time for inadvisable and ill-considered electoral promises, from either side. Our children’s children will wonder just what kind of intentions did we have. History will judge us harshly if we continue with this foolhardy basket of policies.
“Couch Discussion” on Making Legislation Work at Trinidad & Tobago Transparency Institute’s Anti-Corruption Conference Friday 20th March 2015 – Ian Chinapoo, Catherine Kumar, Afra Raymond – moderated by Winston Rudder
Afra Raymond’s main remarks are between 19:26 and 32:15
A detrimental ‘land grab’ is almost upon our country and we all need to be alert to prevent the destruction of our patrimony and prospects.
The State owns most of the land in the country – recent estimates by Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, place the proportion of State-owned land in the 63% range – and as such those lands are critical national assets with which a progressive government could seek to address issues of poverty in a sustainable fashion. Those policies would have to be redistributive in nature if they are to effectively address the serious poverty faced by some of our citizens. That means the State using our resources to provide affordable land and housing to those who are unable to do so in the open market. It is critical to ensure that these redistributive programs operate properly so that the benefits will go to the needy persons for whom they are intended. Those are objectives which I fully support.
I quipped that the ‘Land for the Landless’ program should be re-named ‘Land for Everybody’, but recent developments have turned that quip into a growing reality.
There have been three big changes which have effectively undermined the very meaning of these important redistributive programs –
THE CARONI AGRICULTURAL LANDS
The Trinidad Express reported that the Minister of Finance & the Economy, Larry Howai, announced a significant change in the original policy in the 2015 budget, in that the ex-workers receiving agricultural leases were now free to sell these lands. Those lands which are sold will likely leave the agricultural use for which they were allocated, representing a significant and detrimental ‘alienation’ of those limited lands.
THE NEW ‘LAND FOR THE LANDLESS’ PROGRAM
This important program has been revised to now provide for an annual target of 3,000 to 4,000 lots at an estimated annual cost of $1.0 Billion. Even if one makes the most optimistic assumptions that the upper target of 4,000 lots is achieved at the estimated cost of $1.0 Billion, the cost per lot is $250,000. I do not know if the cost of the land is included in those estimates, but experience suggests that it would have been excluded, which would be a serious gap in the planning for the development of these important public assets.Most alarmingly, the income limits have now been increased in a manner which suggests that this program is no longer intended for the benefit of the disadvantaged in our society. The original ‘Land for the Landless’ program set an upper limit of $8,000 on the family’s monthly income, but that has now been increased to $30,000. A family with a monthly income of $30,000 can readily afford to buy a home with private mortgage financing. Apart from that, there are serious questions as to whether the inclusion of those upper-income applicants would force-out the poorer people this program is intended to assist.
It is just impossible to reconcile the new family income limit of $30,000 for the ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is only for residential lots, with the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) $25,000 limit on the monthly family income of applicants for homes.
THE NEW LAND REFORMS
The government laid the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2015 in Parliament on Friday 29 May and those proposed amendments were passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3 June 2015.
The main points of this proposed new law, which still has to be approved by the Senate, are –
- Application date – formerly, persons who had illegally occupied State Lands up to January 1998 were entitled to be regularised – the new law would move that date to June 2014. That means that more persons will be regularised;
- The numbers – There are serious questions arising about the numbers to be regularised in this process – the PM said recently that 30,000 were to be given Certificates of Comfort, Minister Seemungal is now saying that it is really 60,000, while the LSA website gives estimates of 250,000 persons. So, just what are we counting? Do these numbers represent inhabitants or is it the number of lots? We have no real clarity on just how much additional land is to be allocated in this new process.
- Who is ‘Landless’? – In the original 1998 Act, a ‘landless’ person is defined at S.2 (1) as –
“…“landless” refers to a person who falls within a category designated as disadvantage (sic) by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and who has no legal or equitable interest or any other interest or claim to such an interest, in a dwelling house, residential land, or agricultural land upon which a dwelling house is permitted to be built…”
Obviously, the original law was intended to assist the most needy persons in our society.In the proposed amendment, just approved by the House of Representatives, ‘landless’ has been redefined as follows –
“…(c) in the definition of “landless”, by deleting the words “who falls within a category designated as disadvantage by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and…” (the emphases are mine)
The landless class has now been expanded by our Parliament to eliminate any mention of disadvantage. I tell you.
- Where is the land? – The Schedule of the new law is an A to Z list of designated areas in every district of our country, so these are really expansive proposals. All areas will be affected, from Charlotteville to Los Iros.
- The rationale – Minister Seemungal stated that there are extensive aerial surveys from 2014 and other information being used to guide this process, but I think significant caution is necessary. The lack of an open process of policy review and formation in this important matter is proving very expensive for our collective interests. Have other State agencies and stakeholders been consulted? These critical policy changes must be underpinned by substantial research and consultation which can earn the required degree of public confidence.
- Who benefits? – We do not have any open database on the allocation of public housing, state land or any property at all. These records must be open and searchable so that the potential for serious improper behaviour amounting to a ‘land grab’ is minimised. In the present opaque arrangement the real beneficiaries could remain unknown for too long. Of course that is a recipe for the misallocation of State lands on an epic scale, so it is important to establish some transparent mechanism to examine what is happening.
When one considers the numbers involved, there is a clear sense that these programs, which were intended to benefit the poorer class of citizen, are being systematically ‘gamed’. It is even possible that officials are assisting those elements for the advancement of their own political agendas. The numbers wrangle is beyond the scope of this column, but I will be exploring it in the near future to explain how they relate a particular story.
The degree of confusion is immense, with LSA officers denying the existence of the national Land Policy. If we are to go by his evasive response to simple questions on the SIS occupation of State lands at Couva in disputed circumstances, the very Minister Seemungal can be seen as hostile to providing essential facts. The PM told the Parliament the next day that the Minister had denied making those televised statements.
We need to be alert to protect our patrimony, particularly in relation to property.
“…The question really is integrity, and if he or she does not have it he or she should not be a Commissioner in the first place. The simple fact is that try as we might, we cannot legislate for integrity…”
From Press Release of 21 June 2013 by then Integrity Commission Chairman, Ken Gordon, in response to strong criticisms of his meeting privately and alone with opposition Leader, Dr Keith Rowley.
Once again we are beset by what appears to be yet another fiasco at the Integrity Commission, so Ken Gordon’s fateful words echo in my mind.
Given the current political season, there is every temptation to discuss this crisis as being caused by the impending election, together with either the improper behaviour of the present Peoples Partnership government or the ‘PNM operatives’ who infest the public service. You can take your pick from those prevailing theories, but I think these recent and alarming events were preceded by earlier ones. So much so that when the entire situation is placed in context, we are facing a troubling scenario in terms of the extent to which we can trust high public officials.
The current crisis is serious enough grounds to require a full Commission of Enquiry into the conduct of the Integrity Commission since the 2000 revisions to the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA).
I do not agree with those who call for the abolition of the Integrity Commission, since it is critical that any progressive society establish what are its aspirations and work towards those. Despite the social, religious and legal restrictions on murder, robbery and rape, those acts occur all the time. That sobering truth is no reason at all to retreat from putting strong legal and social prohibitions in place. Society needs laws and institutions to promote its values, so I am not calling for any move towards abolition of the Integrity Commission at all.
Such a Commission of Enquiry is necessary to clear the air on strategic issues and its Terms of Reference would cover aspects such as –
- What is the record of the Integrity Commission in deterring corrupt and improper behaviour by Public Officials?
- To what extent would the amendments to the IPLA, as proposed by the Ken Gordon-led Commission in its 2012 Annual Report, be effective in improving the Commission’s performance?
- Given their growing importance of Public Private Partnerships in large-scale projects and commercial enterprises, to what extent should the IPLA apply to those organisations.
- Apart from the legal framework as outlined above, how can the limited resources of the Integrity Commission be best applied to promote ‘Integrity in Public Life’?
The specific issues
- 19th October 2004 – The Integrity Commission wrote to then PM Patrick Manning seeking detailed instructions on how to handle Ganga Singh’s complaint against Dr Keith Rowley. According to the ruling in the case brought by Dr Rowley against the Commission – “…The Court does not accept the Integrity Commission’s explanation as to why it wrote to the Honourable Prime Minister on the 19th October, 2004, to ascertain whether an inquiry was to be undertaken and if so, the names of the persons to man the enquiry and their terms of reference…”. The public needs a full and proper explanation as to how and why the Integrity Commission took such an extraordinary decision.
- The TSTT exemption – In 2006 the Commission was alleged to have written to TSTT Directors to confirm that they were exempted from filing declarations as required by the IPLA. That letter was the subject of Freedom of Information litigation at both High Court and Appeal Court levels – Magdalene Samaroo vs TSTT CV 2006-0817 and CA 180 of 2010 – and it is fundamental that at no point was the existence of that letter denied. A simple denial would have readily defeated the request for that letter since the Court cannot order publication of a document which simply never existed. The matter was ‘compromised’ by agreement between the parties at an Appeal Court hearing on 28 October 2013, which means that both sides agreed to discontinue the lawsuit. There is obviously something substantial and improper at work here, so an Enquiry can force publication of that suppressed correspondence.
- The TSTT litigation – Since 2005 TSTT has been in prolonged litigation to remove its Directors from Integrity Commission oversight. The High Court ruled in 2007 that TSTT’s Directors were required to file declarations under the IPLA. That judgment was reversed in the Appeal Court ruling of 27 June 2013 that TSTT was not a State Enterprise, with its Directors therefore not required to file declarations to the Integrity Commission. Upon careful reading of those judgments it seems clear that the Integrity Commission offered little, if any, resistance to the TSTT challenge. This sustained collaboration between the Executive, the supposedly-independent Integrity Commission and the Public Private Partnership also known as TSTT is nothing less than remarkable, given the challenges in getting agreement on important and beneficial matters. A proper account is also required for how and why the Commission agreed to this course of action.
- The 2009 collapse – The newly-appointed Commission collapsed in early 2009 due to disastrous appointments by then President Max Richards. One of the several outstanding issues at that time was the strong complaint from Justice Zainool Hosein who claimed that President Richards had promised him the position of Deputy Chairmanship and then reneged on that commitment. President Richards proceeded on an extended leave before deigning to make a public statement on 29th May 2009 which amounted to a stunning ‘I don’t have to explain myself’. An important part of this Enquiry would be to establish just how this series of unfortunate appointments were made.
- CL Financial group of companies – The Commission has never explained its failure or refusal to seek declarations from the Directors of the CL Financial group of companies, which have been under State control since June 2009. I have personally checked and those Directors do not submit declarations to the Commission. CL Financial is the largest by far of the ‘bodies under the control of the State’, yet the Commission has not exercised its lawful duties in respect of proper oversight, so a full and public examination is necessary.
- Emailgate Fiasco – The Commission’s role in this charged affair certainly needs a full, public Enquiry if trust is to be restored. Fixin’ T&T claimed, in its 7 May 2015 letter to the Commission, that the PM had claimed to have had possession of certain files ‘containing information which the IC had requested from Google’. The Commission was asked in that letter whether it was aware of any information being passed onto the PM or any other person. The Commission’s response on the same day was remarkable, in that there was neither confirmation or denial of any information being passed to anyone else. That reticence on such a critical point is even more remarkable when one examines the Commission’s letter of 19th May 2015, which confirmed the end of its ‘Emailgate’ investigation. The first part of that letter states that the provisions of S.35 (1) & (2) of the IPLA prohibits any release of information unless charges are to be recommended. On the one hand, the Commission declines to say if information was released to the PM or anyone else, yet, on the other hand, it stresses the legal rules against such a release. So what is really happening here? What is more, the resignation of two of the IC’s five Commissioners can only add to the sense of confusion in the air. The first resignation came from Dr Shelly Ann Lalchan, supposedly for personal reasons, but the clear statements from the second Commissioner to resign, former Deputy Chairman, Justice Sebastien Ventour, are worrying to say the least. Can it be true that the media was the first place the Commissioners were made aware of that important letter of the 19 May? If that is indeed so, it is clearly unacceptable for a public body to conduct itself in that fashion.
A final issue for an Enquiry to consider would be the role of whistleblowing within bodies such as the Integrity Commission. On the one hand the Commission could not perform its work without reports from people who are reporting suspected wrongdoing, probably in breach of their employers’ rules, yet the very officers within the Commission are prevented from reporting wrongdoing in its own operations. That is the true irony at work and a proper Enquiry will be able to take evidence and make recommendations to deal with this.
A full and urgent Commission of Enquiry into the Integrity Commission is now required.
My letter to the Editor was published in the Trinidad Express on 3 June 2015 as “Protecting our patrimony.”
The government laid the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2015 in Parliament on Friday 29 May and I am reliably informed that it is due to be approved at today’s sitting (Wednesday 3 June 2015).
Given the continuing absence of the Opposition PNM from our Parliament and the sporadic coverage in the media, it is important that the main points of these new proposals be exposed –
- Application date – formerly, persons who had illegally occupied State Lands up to January 1998 were entitled to be regularised – the new law would move that date to June 2014. That means that more persons will be regularised;
- The numbers – There are serious questions arising about the numbers to be regularised in this process – the PM said recently that 30,000 were to be given Certificates of Comfort, Minister Seemungal is now saying that it is really 60,000, while the LSA website gives estimates of 250,000 persons. So, just what are we counting? Do these numbers represent inhabitants or is it the number of lots? We have no real clarity on just how much additional land is to to be allocated in this new process.
- Where is the land? – The Schedule of the new law is an A to Z list of designated areas in every district of our country, so these are really expansive proposals. All areas will be affected.
- The rationale – Minister Seemungal stated that there are extensive aerial surveys and other information being used to guide this process, but I think significant caution is necessary. The lack of an open process of policy review and formation in this important matter is proving very expensive for our collective interests. Have other State agencies and stakeholders been consulted?
- Who benefits? – We do not have any open database on the allocation of public housing, state land or even all property. Which means that the real beneficiaries could remain unknown. Of course that is a recipe for the misallocation of State lands on an epic scale, so it is important to establish some transparent mechanism to examine what is happening.
Just remember that Minister Seemungal was the one who refused to provide details on the terms under which SIS occupied certain State lands at Couva, claiming that those details were private. The PM told the Parliament the next day that the Minister had denied making those televised statements. As I wrote recently in the ‘Our Land’ series, the new rules for the ‘Land for the Landless’ program, make it seem that the real name should be ‘Land for Everybody’.
We need to be alert to protect our patrimony, particularly in relation to property.
The Trinidad & Tobago Land Policy of 1992 has not been reviewed, withdrawn or superceded. Those are the facts. The responses of various public officials when queried, and the routine conduct of public bodies in relation to public land, are both in conflict with the existing policy. This article will explore the gap between the official policy and official conduct.
The 1992 Policy contains elements which are substantially beneficial to our nation.
Land is very important, especially because the quantity is very limited, so we need future-looking and properly-enforced Land Policy if we are to have a sustainable future in our country. I am specifically using ‘we’, since the important role of land requires us all to have a stake in these progressive outcomes. I am also specifically using ‘in our country‘, to emphasise the fact that most of us will have to live here.
This week’s column will set out some of the key elements in the 1992 Land Policy, so that we can begin to understand just why it has been effectively dismissed from official consideration.
An important consideration is the high proportion of public land in our country, at para 1.2 on page 2 of the Land Policy we learn that an estimated 52% of the whole is State land. We also recently heard Land & Marine Resources Minister, Jairam Seemungal, state that the proportion of land belonging to the State is of the order of 58% of the whole. Because so much of the country’s land belongs to the State, it is therefore critical to ensure we have a robust policy in respect of State land.
An estimated 47% of State land is forested and therefore subject to certain controls. The non-forested State lands are about 133,000 hectares, which is about 329,000 acres.
The estimated land area designated as suitable for cultivation is about 35% of the whole, comprising about 179,000 hectares or 442,000 acres.
According to the 1992 policy, there is a significant decline in the proportion of suitable land actually under cultivation, from 74% in 1963 to about 60% in 1982.
We need to consider food security as an important part of our country’s security. Our taste for foreign food and drinks; the uncertainty of our foreign exchange supply and the continuing loss of agricultural land, all mean that it is critical for land use policy to support our country’s food security policies.
History shows that once land is removed from agricultural use for other types of development, it is almost always lost for future agricultural use. That is described as ‘land alienation’ to signify a complete loss.
We have already lost some of our most fertile lands to contemporary development – eg three major areas completely lost are Valsayn as well as the River and Diamond Estates in Diego Martin. The very fertile Aranjuez lands are being rapidly developed with housing and commercial uses.
In fact, the lands at Tucker Valley in Chaguaramas are some of the last remaining first-class agricultural land in the country. To my mind this means that extra attention must be paid to any proposals for the use or development of those lands. Most importantly, those proposals must be ventilated and considered within the context of the land policy.
So, what does our official land policy state on this critical issue?
At page 9 –
4. LAND USE POLICY
4.1 During the period of the oil boom (1974-1982) there was great incentive to shift land out of agricultural into other uses such as housing developments and industrial/commercial activity. In the process much good agricultural land was irretrievably misallocated. This is confirmed by the 1982 Agricultural Census.
4.2 The New Land Policy proposes:
(a) that the existing system of land use zoning be strengthened to ensure that prime agricultural land is not mis-managed or converted to non-agricultural uses except on the basis of a significant spatial or economic development rationale…
Land for the Landless
The expanded program is to provide between 3,000 to 4,000 lots each year, at an estimated annual cost of $1.0 Billion. The Minister also proposed an increase of the income limits for applicants from the previous figure to a new joint monthly income of $30,000.
This ‘Land for the Landless‘ program will require our sternest scrutiny, given its key features. For one thing, the annual target of 3,000 to 4,000 lots means that about 200 hectares (or 500 acres) of land would be distributed each year. How can we ensure that this program does not cause more loss of our limited agricultural land? Where is all this land going to come from? Given the fact that most officials seem unaware of our country’s existing land policy, this is a serious issue. Indeed, the very Land Settlement Agency stated that they were unaware of any State land policy when we contacted them before starting this series. So that is the problem, the officials who should know, don’t know and what is more, they don’t know that they don’t know. I tell you.
But the situation becomes even less acceptable when we consider the increased income levels in the expanded program. The intention of this program, as I understand it, is to provide subsidised housing lots to poorer people who are unable to afford land and intend to build their own homes. A family with a combined monthly income of $30,000 would comfortably qualify for private mortgage financing to buy a home in the $1.5M+ price range. To expand a program intended to serve the poorer groups of hopeful homeowners in this way is a wanton diversion of limited State resources – both land and finance – for some other purpose.
HDC allocation policy sets a monthly household income limit at $25,000 and LSA is now racing ahead to offer subsidised land to families earning up to $30,000 a month. I tell you.
It seems like this program is really ‘Land for Everybody’.
…With this, Mr. Speaker, you would find that you have lands all over the place, they have thousands and thousands and thousands of acres. Just under the Caroni (1975) Limited alone, they had over 70,000 acres of land, and now I am finding it is closer to 90,000 aces to 100,000 acres of land they had, and we can only know that, Mr. Speaker, by using a scientific approach…
So, there is official uncertainty as to the true land area of the Caroni estate.
The most important finding, thus far, is the extent to which the basic policy and information is unknown, which would be a very bad situation, or it is known and is being purposely ignored. The former case would be a very sorry story in terms of how our country has been run for too long, but the latter case would be far, far worse. So, which is it?
What we need as a starting-point in this process of managing the critical asset of land, is an open, searchable database with details of all the country’s property, public and private. The 2009 Property Tax proposals made by the Manning administration would have required such a database if the new system was to have worked. There was considerable merit in those proposals, but the strong opposition killed the idea and the Peoples Partnership shelved the Property Tax after winning elections in May 2010.
There are substantial landowners and land-grabbers who would have had their holdings and operations exposed to critical scrutiny if such a database had been established. Those people have benefitted from the continued opaque arrangements.
So, what does the Land Policy say on this?
“…Establishment of National Land Information System
3.4 …Lack of timely information results in loss of revenues, loss of investment opportunities and inefficiencies in land management…
3.5 The New Land Policy proposes establishment of an integrated graphic and non-graphic national land information system as a matter of priority. This system will be computer-based…”
Of course, back in 1992, the internet was in its infancy, so the proposal was not for online access.
There have been some steps to complete the required database, but given the amount of money which has flowed through our Treasury and the enlightened policy being established in 1992, we are still without the required detailed, public information.
The question is ‘Which interests are served by operating in the shadows?‘
Our country has severe limits on the available land, so we need a proper system to ensure that those lands are used in a sustainable and equitable manner. Despite its beneficial aspects, it is clear to me that the 1992 Land Policy is in need of revision. In the interim, that policy must be observed. The concerned members of the public need to inform themselves to defend our patrimony.
To be continued…