OVER 3,854 people have each illegally made their home in the Forest Reserve in North-East Trinidad, revealed Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat yesterday. These squatters (and presumably their families) live across 11 areas of forest that total 2,000 acres in area.
He spoke at the First Statutory Lease Distribution Ceremony where 100 applicants, advanced from having certificates of comfort to a 30-year statutory deed, with the prospects of next getting a 99 year deed of comfort. The event at the Government Plaza Auditorium, Richmond Street, Port of Spain, was held by the Land Settlement Agency (LSA) of the Ministry of Housing.
The minister said no-one squatting on a protected area, environmentally-sensitive area or forest reserve would be regularised.
He said some 5,934 illegal structures have been erected in the forest, of which 3,000-plus are residential structures. Rambharat recalled seeing one such home with a 20 feet by 10 feet solar panel. Saying some squatter houses are substantial structures, he said, “Some are occupied by members of our law enforcement agencies.”
The minister later told Newsday, “In North East Trinidad squatting in Forest Reserves is particularly severe. In some areas the residential communities are so well established that the forests have been cleared permanently. “The Conservator of Forests has recommended that the lands be taken out of the Reserves. We have been considering this and have already identified State Lands under good forest cover that can be added to Forest Reserves so that there is no net loss of Forests.” He said recent legislation has eliminated the prospect of someone in a Forest Reserve claiming the legal ownership of the site by virtue of adverse possession.
Rambharat said his ministry has hundreds of quarters used to accommodate its staff, just as do other ministries. He recalled in February 2016 asking for details of the occupancy of these quarters.
“I got the report two and a half years later.” He lamented that after retirement some of these quarters had remained occupied by the retired post-holders. Sometimes the occupant passed the quarters on to relatives who ended up living there for years. “Some are occupied by people who retired 20 years ago.” Rambharat said at Long Circular Road, St James where land is valued at $1,500 per square foot, one Government quarters was still occupied by a relative of a watchman who had originally lived there in 1957. “They are no different to the squatters we are dealing with here today,” he said. The electricity and water bills to such properties are paid by the general public, he complained. Saying such people include the ministry’s retired senior technocrats who pass their occupancy to their children some of whom in turn pass it on, he said, “In some cases one finds four generations.”
Rambharat said it is time to take a stand and encourage such persons to leave such quarters.
He recalled having to chide a beneficiary of State land to pay a mere $200 per month to get entitlement to the property, which he ultimately sold. “I asked whim what he had sold it for and he said to me with a smile ‘$1.1 million.’” Otherwise he said he was reporting 8,000 cases of suspected land corruption to the TT Police Service Fraud Squad. He publicly thanked whistle-blowers for exposing corruption. He estimated the number of squatters who are currently applying for certificates of comfort as about 68,000.
The Housing Ministry’s permanent secretary gave a speech due to be given by an absent Prime Minister. In it Dr Rowley had listed ways to make housing more available and more affordable. This included programmes such as Rent-to-Own, Self-Help and the Housing and Village Improvement Programme. The PM wanted easier access to the TT Mortgage Finance Company, a shift of focus from building housing units for sale to units for rental, and attraction of private sector involvement.