Over the past weeks the nation has been informed of a number of persons, employed in state entities, that have applied for and/or acquired state lands. Obviously, questions are being asked whether it is ethical or right for these persons to acquire such lands during their period of employment with the state, particularly those in positions of authority who can use their status to influence distribution.
The conversations have taken on many dynamics, including allegations of racial and political preferencing, and statements to the effect, that those persons who want to acquire such lands and get into private investment should leave their public sector employment.
Dispassionate examination of this issue will find that acquiring state land by persons employed in the public sector is nothing new and no political administration can make the claim that it never happened on their watch. During the days when the state commanded the height of the economy, public sector workers acquired state land. This nation has on record Commissioners of Police and Chiefs of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force that were leased tracts of state lands to do farming, a private economic venture.
A number of senior government executives, members of the Disciplined Services, those operating in state agencies and ministries have acquired lands not only for agriculture purposes, but also to exploit our resources such as gold, diamond and forestry.
Then Minister of Housing Irfaan Ali’s acquisition of state land – during the Bharrat Jagdeo administration – to do farming is no different to that of SARA executive Aubrey Heath-Retemyer making similar application and acquiring. We cannot be selective in this country or play politics to the extent where one’s action is justified or considered wrong depending on who he/she is, his/her politics or looks.
We must ask ourselves questions such as:- i) are those persons applying for and acquiring state land residents or citizens of Guyana; ii) are they in possession of a tax identification number and paying taxes; and iii) what does our Lands Distribution Policy say about who can acquire land and how it can be acquired? If persons satisfy the aforementioned, they should not be denied and hounded.
This notwithstanding, charges of being discriminated against with regards to the acquiring of state lands are real, and must be addressed frontally. However, such discrimination must not be confused with persons satisfying current requirements to apply and acquire. As a citizen of this country and leader of the trade union movement, I can recount two experiences of being discriminated against in this area.
In 2009 I engaged a housing developer, whom I know personally for years, to acquire a house lot in Eccles. Those lands were given by the state to this developer. He gave me the assurance I could get a lot and quoted the price. Within a week I returned to tie up the arrangement to proceed with acquiring the property and was told by him to call and speak with President Jagdeo. I refused to comply, because as a citizen I should not have to prostrate myself to pay for and own a piece of this nation.
Another experience is that of the 8th March 2000 Agreement between the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and the Government of Guyana, led by Bharrat Jagdeo. This agreement was signed by Dr. Roger Luncheon, on behalf of the Government, and yours truly, on behalf of the GTUC. It included the GTUC’s proposal to acquire 3,000 acres of state land for the establishment of an all-inclusive housing project on the Linden/Soesdyke Highway, north of Loo Creek. This project aimed to build on the movement’s legacy playing a role in the nation’s housing development drive, as done with the establishment of TucVille, TucBerg and other schemes.
The GTUC’s application and proposal were submitted to the Lands and Surveys Department (LSD) within weeks of the signing. Repeated checks at the LSD as to the progress and status of the application were met with the royal runaround. When I was not told to return, it was some excuse that the application was misplaced and was being looked for. When the PPP/C demitted office in 2015, I returned to the LSD to follow up. My first visit proved the application was readily at hand. With further inquiry, it was discovered only 700 of the 3,000 acres of the identified land remained.
There is a strong perception in this society that whenever African Guyanese, or organisations predominantly led by African Guyanese, are part of or known to have applied for state land, acquired land, including ancestral land, a furore ensues. The impression is being conveyed that Africans are not deserving or entitled. And where Africans own, there is always some low talk, questioning the ability or means to legitimately possess.
I faced a situation appearing before the Lands Commission of Inquiry, representing the land purchased by my great, great, great-grandfather, Cudjoe McPherson, a former slave, who bought the village of Kingelly, West Coast Berbice. I felt compelled at that hearing and after to defend my ancestor’s legacy, even though in my possession is a transport of the purchase, which was displayed at the inquiry.
A few days ago, a former PPP/C minister, on his facebook page, dubbed the call for an African Credit Union “a Ponzi scheme.”
As some take offence to Africans’ efforts at empowerment or seek to deny same, they willingly would allow non-Guyanese to acquire state land, establish business or stay silent in the face of such pursuits. What make foreigners more equal than some Guyanese?
In the absence of any law or policy barring persons employed by the state to apply for and acquire state land during this period of employment, the harassment must cease. There must be respect for the constitutional right of others to economic self-determination, including property ownership. We are all Guyanese; none is better or more equal than the other. We must all be guaranteed our basic security in order to peacefully co-exist.
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