Minister Sukhai embroiled in land grabbing dispute
…Instructed NTC chairperson to intervene
Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Pauline Sukhai, is at the centre of a bitter land grabbing row at Santa Rosa in the North West District.
The dispute surrounds a piece of land, with a house, which Sukhai’s step-father, Leonard Torres, wants to claim so Minister Sukhai’s son could build a guest house. But some village leaders and residents have protested the move.
The house was occupied by one Melanie Torres at the time the dispute arose; the lady has since been evicted.
On September 16, 2005, the Santa Rosa Village Council granted Melanie Torres permission to have a plot of land at San Jose, Santa Rosa, to build her home. It is the same place, the Village Council noted, where the woman was living for 24 years.
The woman had left the area for a short time, and returned, only to be told that she can no longer live there.
The Village Council held a meeting on January 11, last, and Minister Sukhai had asked Ms. Yvonne Pearson, the Chairperson of the National Toshaos Council (NTC), to intervene on her behalf since, as Minister of Amerindian Affairs, she could not represent the interest of her father given conflict of interest issues that could arise.
At that meeting, it was decided that the house and land legally belonged to Leonard Torres, and that there was no record to show that the land was transferred to anyone, previously. This is despite the fact that Melanie Torres has a signed letter by the Village Council showing that she was given permission in 2005 to build a house on the land on which she was living for 24 years previously.
Sharon Atkinson, the President of the Amerindian People’s Association (APA), claims that at one meeting of the Village Council, Leonard Torres said that he wanted the house and land so he could transfer it to Minister Sukhai, who wanted the land so her son could build a guest house.
This information was confirmed yesterday when Kaieteur News spoke with the village head, Toshao Joseph (Marco) DeSouza.
DeSouza said that Sukhai doesn’t know how long she will hold on to her portfolio as Minister of Amerindian Affairs and so at some point she would like to move back to Moruca.
Atkinson, who is based in Moruca, was at the meeting where the proposal for the land transfer to Minister Sukhai was made. She said she protested the claim based on the grounds that Leonard Torres, Minister Sukhai, and her son are not residents of the area.
She said that Leonard Torres left the area 45 years ago while Minister Sukhai has not lived in the village since she left at the age of five. Further, her son to whom she wants to transfer the land, is not a resident of the village.
However, the Toshao said that while Torres has not been living in the area, he would “come and go” and seek to ensure that the house and land he built were cared for.
However, the President of the APA is claiming that Torres’s plan to transfer the land to the Minister and then a further transfer to her son is contrary to the Amerindian Act, which dictates that land cannot be transferred to a non-resident.
The Village Toshao said that he has no problems with the land transfer.
Atkinson said that the matter got even worse when the Minister used her powers to intervene in a matter in which she is involved, displaying glaring conflict of interest. Atkinson said that the Minister used her powers, by asking the NTC to intervene, so the case could go in her favour. On January 10, Minister Sukhai brought the case to the attention of Pearson, the Chairperson of the National Toshaos Council (NTC).
In her letter to Pearson, Sukhai declared that her father is the lawful owner of the land with a house on it at San Jose, Santa Rosa Village.
Sukhai claimed that Leonard Torres’s ownership of the property was established by the Santa Rosa Village Council over a series of meetings which involved all parties with an interest in the land, including his siblings, to provide verification on the case.
The Minister further claimed that the property was illegally occupied during the last quarter of 2011. Since December 2011, Torres has been unable to access his home.
As a result, Sukhai asked Pearson to attend a January 11, meeting in the village and “provide guidance on issues that may arise, in this case on behalf of my father and if necessary to the Santa Rosa village Council on their request.”
“It is obvious that as the daughter of Mr Torres, I would like to be by his side but due to my position as Minister of Amerindian Affairs, any engagement can be construed or interpreted as conflict of interest,” Sukhai said in her letter to Pearson.
However, Atkinson argued that the mere request by the Minister to have Pearson attend the meeting represented a conflict of interest, and further, while Pearson was asked to give advice, the Minister in her letter had already declared that the property is her father’s.
The Ministry of Tourism has been promoting Moruca as a tourist destination, and an annual Moruca Day, plus Heritage celebrations, has been seeing an increasing number of tourists.
The village Toshao said that he has no problems if the Minister wants the land to give to her son so he could build a guest house to accommodate the increasing number of visitors of Moruca.
Meanwhile, Melanie Torres, is in the process of removing her belongings from the house at San Jose.