BY PAT DIAL
Squatting is one of the continuous illegalities which the Authorities responsible for dealing with this unacceptable behaviour have only been sporadically addressing. This failure of the Authorities to continuously and firmly address squatting has led to squatters and would-be squatters realizing that they could take a very good chance of squatting undisturbed on both public and private land.
In the political-inspired disturbances of the 1960’s, several thousand persons were forced to leave their villages and settle elsewhere where they would be safe from racio-political attacks. These “refugees” settled on any available state lands they could find and even private property, and the exigencies of the time caused officials and private persons to have some sympathy for the plight of the squatters and were lenient to them, since the assumption was that the squatting would be only temporary until normality returned.
Several of these squatter settlements remained and years after were “regularized”, but this squatter episode of the 1960’s initiated the culture where squatters began to assume that they could squat with impunity and that the Authorities, and even private owners, would be dilatory and take no action to evict them.
Government has been giving agricultural leases to all who apply, as well as distributing thousands of house lots. Everyone could now acquire freehold house lots or leasehold agricultural land at subsidized costs. No one now has any justification for squatting.
But the culture of squatting which made its appearance in the 1960’s still survives. This culture has now been reinforced with the greed of squatters who squat in company with relatives, who together squat on large portions of public and private lands, and expect to speculate on the land, fraudulently “selling” house lots to the gullible. Squatting today is not caused by need, but by the culture of lawlessness and greed, since state land leases and house lots are there for the asking.
Two recent squatting incidents which were reported in the press would illustrate the present attitude of squatters, and indeed, of officials. Last year, the Local Authority wished to execute some fairly urgent infrastructural works in the Sophia area, but the structures which the squatters had erected on the state reserves made it impossible to extend or widen the roads or to clean the drainage trenches.
Despite the presence of Police and Local Government officials, a few new squatters still defiantly continued to erect structures. It was only when stern action was taken and some structures were demolished that two fields were cleared. The squatters in the third field armed themselves and would have attacked the officials who had to withdraw. The standoff went on for two days and most of these third field squatters managed to remain.
The other incident occurred a few months ago when a family which had returned from Venezuela to Region 2 wished to erect a structure to house their family of four. The family approached the NDC chairman, who understood that the family were in effect “refugees” in their own country and told them that he had no objection if they built a temporary structure and would remove such whenever the NDC requested it.
The Regional Executive Officer (REO) seized the family’s building material which they had bought on credit and forbade them to build, though in the same area there were several other squatters who had built structures without any official objection. The REO demanded that they should apply for a house lot and only when that was given could they build any shelter. The root cause of this problem was the failure of the officials to prevent squatting in the first place.
Squatter settlements or ghettos are incubators of criminals. They are usually insanitary, since electricity and water could not be supplied them by the Utilities. Their conglomeration of shacks or poorly built houses are fire hazards. Children do not attend school regularly or not at all. Squatting is anti-social and out of consonance with National Development and should be eradicated.
Squatting may appear to be very difficult or even impossible to control or eliminate. Actually, with firm and focused action it could be gradually ended.
The Departments responsible for land – The Lands and Surveys Commission and the Ministry of Housing – should create small units of one or two persons who would devise and execute programs of Education on squatting. Two points such programmes should underline, the first being that squatters have no rights and the other that whatever structure a squatter may have erected belongs to the land when it would have been re-possessed by the owners.
The Law needs to be strengthened by repealing the present 12-year rule and resuscitating the 33-year rule whereby no squatting or prescriptive rights claim could be made before 33 years. The 12-year rule was adopted from English legislation and is highly inappropriate to Guyana. The 12-year rule is appropriate to an urban society like England, but is inappropriate to a largely rural society like Guyana. And secondly, proportionally, Guyana has the highest emigration rate in the world and emigrant owners’ property may not always be taken care of by the relatives and friends left in charge. When owners return, they are shocked to see their property had been sequestered.
The Police should be more proactive in investigating and being involved in squatting complaints since squatting is lawlessness and squatting often results in dangerous altercations and violence.
And finally, the Courts should also try in their own ways to control squatting. The Guyana Bar Association are the best informed group of the dangers of squatting and would render the country a positive social benefit if they strongly petitioned Government to amend and strengthen the laws relating to squatting.
If focused action is taken, squatting could be controlled and eliminated in a reasonable time.
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