“Squatters,” said Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat in June, “have nothing to fear under this government.” Rambharat was contributing to a Senate debate on the Land Adjudication Act, 2000, a new registration system for land titles in TT. This overdue update to the law and registration system for titles will create a new land register for property in TT and over the next ten years will deliver a more robust system for adjudicating contested ownership of parcels of land.
Last week, 80 eligible squatters received certificates of comfort (CoC) from the Land Settlement Agency (LSA), the first step in a regularisation of tenure for occupiers of state land. They joined 33 squatters given CoC documents by Point Fortin MP Edmund Dillon in June and 300 who were promised certificates by Housing Minister Randall Mitchell before the end of 2017. Recipients of the document have up to 30 years to pay for the land at a cost of 25 per cent of its market value. Those who do so will be eligible for Deeds of Lease for a period of 199 years. The Agriculture Minister has stated that by September 2020 he hopes to distribute 5,000 leases to squatters on state lands.
The LSA has a very specific scope, dealing with squatters who were on state land prior to January 01, 1998 who also registered under the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) Act no 25 of 1998, a number that’s estimated at 68,000. But, according to the LSA, there are more than 55,000 families comprising 200,000 people squatting across the country increasing at a rate of 1,000 people per year.
Squatting isn’t only financially challenged families in remote locations. Police officers and soldiers were called into the HDC’s Clifton Hill Towers twice in late 2017 to clear apartments taken over by squatters. Rambharat has also observed that there are official government quarters occupied, at taxpayer cost, by the children of the state officers and technocrats they were granted to.
“In some cases,” he said in July, “one finds four generations.” There are close to 4,000 people squatting illegally in the Forest Reserve of north-east Trinidad., none of whom will be able, under law, to own such lands unless they are removed from the reserve. Most such settlements have already been cleared of trees.
Squatters who cleared 20 acres of land near the western bank of the Tunapuna River have created a new zone of rapid erosion.
As well-intentioned as squatter regularisation might be and as agreeable as it might seem to politicians keen to bolster their votes, there is an obvious need here for clear guidelines for occupation in the interests of public safety and holistic land development.