The number of squatters on state land has risen sharply over the last two decades, growing from an estimated 23,000 families to about 55,000, and presents a major challenge to the Housing Ministry and the Land Settlement Agency.
So said Minister of Housing Edmund Dillon, who delivered the feature address when eighty families were given certificates of comfort.
They were issued by the Land Settlement Agency (LSA), an agency of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, at the Sangre Grande Civic Centre on Wednesday.
Most of the recipients live in Bois Bande, KP Lands and on the Valencia "long stretch."
They received the certificates some 20 years after they applied, giving them the right to live on their land. The certificates will give them the opportunity to obtain statutory leases at a quarter of the land's market value.
Under the State Lands Act, the LSA is mandated only to regularise those who were illegally occupying state land before January 1, 1998, and applied for squatter regularisation no later than October 27, 2000.
Dillon explained the limitations in distributing state lands to squatters.
"While we seek to improve the living conditions and circumstances of persons in these communities listed in the act, there is a caveat," said Dillon. "The act makes no provision for the protection of new squatters, so anyone who chooses to do so will be acting outside the law."
He also reiterated that the certificates do not allow the holder to sell or transfer the land, or go beyond the boundary and fence additional lands. By law, the successful applicant is entitled to 5,000 square feet of land.
"This is only the beginning. You need to make the land work for you and your family," said Dillon, "and this means actual ownership of the land.
"This is where you need to enter into the second phase of the process through the acquisition of a statutory lease for the land."
The last step of the process is for the resident to obtain a deed of lease, which will be issued once the lease has been paid in full. The deed is valid for 199 years.
Dillon said he is pleased that the recipients can rest comfortably, knowing they are protected by law.
Both the housing ministry and the LSA, Dillon said, intend to continue distributing leases, "So that many more deserving COC holders throughout the country will be able to enjoy the security of tenure for the lands they now occupy."
Since the current administration was elected, over 475 certificates of comfort and approximately 131 statutory leases have been distributed under the Squatter Regularisation Programme, under the LSA, of which 79 have been distributed to certificate holders last year in the northeastern region, according to the ministry.