During the time Government has been trying to keep COVID-19 at bay, land grabbers have used the opportunity to take over state lands in more than 17 areas across the country.
Some have been working in the dead of night to set up illegal structures.
Chairman of the Land Settlement Agency (LSA) Ossley Francis recently appealed to the Commissioner of State Lands to take action. However, Inspector in the Office of the Commissioner of State Lands (OCSL) Tyrone Ramadhin said they need equipment, additional manpower and police protection as some of the squatters have links with criminal gangs.
He said often when the OCSL takes offenders to court, the cases fell apart.
“More than 200 cases involving the State and illegal land occupiers were dismissed last year alone because of a lack of legal representation on the part of the state,” he said.
While the Government is trying to build a database on land ownership, land grabbing has escalated. Squatting communities have sprouted up along Papourie Road in Esperance and off Golconda Road. Trees have been cut down and land blocked off with coconut trees.
Along Factory Road, Chaguanas, more than 100 acres of Caroni land has been cleared for farming. Banana and coconut trees have been planted by the land grabbers to demarcate boundaries.
A squatting settlement at Railway Road, Savonetta, located behind the Couva Fire Station, has been expanding and several new structures have been erected along the old train line near the Picton Presbyterian School. Along the M2 and M1 Ring Road, unauthorised cultivation has been taking place on Caroni lands. Landgrabbers have also occupied acreages on Hilltop Avenue and Springvale in Claxton Bay.
Near the Debe campus of the University of the West Indies, businessman Ajit Moonesar has built a road, erected a barrier, backfilled and excavated a watercourse although he has been served with a legal notice to desist.
Investigators have also caught other businesspeople illegally claiming ownership of valuable lands near the campus.
Ramadhin and his team have demolished illegal structures put up by Moonesar and stopped more than 30 squatters from building structures at Cedar Hill Road, Claxton Bay. However, many other breaches have gone unpunished because of shortages of manpower and equipment.
Ramadhin said in the 1990s there was a vibrant Anti-Squatting Unit which carried out demolitions resulting in a reduction in squatting.
“This was a special team comprising of police officers and they would do patrols to make sure that people did not squat on state lands,” he said.
Since the disbanding of that unit, squatting has escalated. At one point there were discussions with the T&T Police Service (TTPS) about bringing back that unit but it is still to off the ground.
Former president of the defunct Trinidad Islandwide Cane Farmers Association, newspaper columnist Raffique Shah raised concerns last year about the “multi-billion-dollar racket involving state lands, that fall under Caroni Ltd, Petrotrin and the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA).”
He said Caroni owned more than 70,000 acres of land, Petrotrin owned 25,000 acres and 15,000 acres fell under the purview of the CDA.
“Government is hardly in a position to recover any of the illegally-occupied lands, especially those that have structures ranging from solid concrete houses to large commercial buildings and in few instances, plants and machinery for industrial purposes.
“It makes sense, therefore, to sell them, with first options going to the occupiers. If they do not have the means to purchase the properties, then offer them to the public,” Shah recommended.
Ramdeo Boondoo, a farmer, said if a proper surveillance team had been in place, squatting would not have escalated to the extent that it has.
“We have genuine farmers who are squatting and these people should not be victimised. They should be given temporary leases as they contribute to the food basket but in cases where people are blocking land and forming squatting communities, we have to nip that in the bud,” he said.
Boondoo said squatters have been moving in along Railway Road, Palmiste, and there has been an increase in crime in nearby communities. Former CEO of Caroni Green Ltd (CGL) Sharma Lalla said seizing properties and selling them on the open market may not be the best option. He proposed that the government immediately move to stop the illegal occupation of all state land.
“The only way to deal with these illegal occupants is to enforce the law. If the Commissioner of Police has to create a new unit like he is doing for so many things, we will be able to stop people from land grabbing. The unit has to be properly equipped and given adequate resources as well as the relevant documentation from the office of the Commissioner of State Lands,” he said.
Lalla said he is very disappointed at the exploitation of Caroni’s vast agricultural lands which could be put to productive use.
Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat agreed that squatting has been an issue for more than 50 years. He said he has reported violations to the Commissioner of State lands only to see the violators erect structures a year later.
Minister of Local Government Kazim Hosein said municipal police officers will be out in full force making sure that people abide by the law.
Chairman of the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation Dr Allen Sammy said corporation personnel are willing to assist the OCSL with equipment as long as a formal written request is made. He said along Wellington Road, the strip of land opposite the campus which has been claimed by land grabbers should be reclaimed by the state and made into a community park.