LAST week, Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries Clarence Rambharat had land management issues on his mind. Speaking in the Senate on Tuesday, he lamented the number of fraud cases that came to his attention which found multiple people buying the same parcel of land. The cases he offered to the Senate as examples of the sort of thing that occupy his executive time were byzantine scams and staggering examples of bureaucracy run wild, trampling the least capable of our citizens like ants in an elephant’s dance.
On Friday, land misuse still on his mind, Rambharat told former Caroni 1975 employees that he had proposed to cabinet that leases be rescinded to 200 people he identified as land grabbers and not legitimate farmers. Farmers in Orange Grove, he claimed, were being made to pay up to $30,000 to land grabbers claiming state lands as their property.
At least part of the problem with land management in TT is the parlous state of reliable information about land ownership. Discovery of ownership and zoned use of land in this country is an unnecessarily arcane process, the data frozen in bureaucratically-induced lockdown.
For state lands alone, search depends first on what kind of land is in question. Agricultural state lands are overseen by the Agriculture Ministry on behalf of the Commissioner of State Lands. Residential state lands occupied by squatters fall under the Land Settlement Agency in the Housing Ministry. Unoccupied state land; use of the territorial seabed and coastal reclamation projects are the business of the Commissioner of State Lands in the Lands and Surveys Division.
Given that TT’s geography has remained largely unchanged since Independence save for some troubling examples of increased coastal erosion, there seems to be no good reason for the absence of an organised, publicly accessible database of, at the very least, state lands, their zoning and their leasehold status.
In an era of pervasive Internet access, open source geospatial data and fine-grained global mapping, there seems to be no good reason existing information about state lands, their precise boundaries, zoned use and leasehold status is not, in 2018, readily available to anyone who wants to view it.
As the Agriculture Minister is fully aware, state lands don’t actually belong to the state, but to the people of this nation who have entrusted their most important patrimony to the sitting political leadership for the considered management of this most fundamental resource. That responsibility needs to be matched with transparency.
The government manages public land on behalf of the electorate and the status of that asset should be an accessible record available to TT citizens.