From time to time we will revisit the issue of squatting on both state and private land since it is one of the scourges of Guyanese society.
Squatting during colonial times was not a widespread practice. It only became common during the racio-political disturbances of the 1960’s when persons of minority racial groups in the various villages felt very insecure and moved to nearby villages where their group predominated.
These “refugees” settled on the outskirts of the various villages to which they relocated forming what came to be known as “squatting areas” or “squatter settlements”.
This development of squatter settlements occurred mostly in the county of Demerara and especially on the East Coast and West Coast. In Berbice and Essequibo there was comparatively very little movement of people between the villages.
In the 1960’s, unfortunately, the main political parties were sucked into this squatting imbroglio with negative results: Squatters began to feel that squatting had some legality and became violent when the land owners – whether state or private persons- required them to remove.
With the passing of time, the political parties themselves realized that they had become hostages of the squatters who would threaten to withdraw their support except the political parties took their side in disputes. This caused the political parties to alienate some of their support and to appear as upholders of lawlessness.
There are other serious negative results of squatting. From about the 1970’s squatting became a business activity. Families and close friends would invade private and even state lands and demarcate parcels among themselves. They often never lived on the land they demarcated but “sold” it to others. Sometimes they would have built shacks or small houses which they would rent out.
In these squatting areas, they invariably stole electricity and water on a large scale and built structures in contravention of the building laws, creating sanitary and drainage problems causing flooding and water logging providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and disease.
Squatting areas are known breeding grounds for criminals who prey upon society. The children who live in squatting areas attend school very irregularly and drop out much before they reach the sixth grade thus increasing the ranks of the unemployed.
Recently, we had the opportunity of visiting a squatting area on East Bank Demerara near the village of Land of Canaan and the squatters were true to form – they stole electricity and water, built structures in contravention of the building laws and in some cases rented out the structures they had built.
One of them owned a brick factory at Timehri and drove an expensive car. They lobbied political parties to bring pressure on the owners not to take legal action on them and were able to dupe a social media operator that they were poor people who were in need and for whom the Government must provide accommodation.
In Guyana, a country with so much land and so small a population and with a State that liberally grants leases for land, there should be no squatting.
Squatting could be brought under control and minimized if the following actions are taken: The Ministry of Housing and the Lands and Surveys Commission should carry out education programmes from time to time discouraging squatting.
The Police must readily answer calls to visit squatting areas since these areas could sometimes be on the verge of violence.
The main political parties should agree among themselves not to entertain demands by squatters that they intrude themselves into squatting disputes and to let this be publicly known. This would prevent political parties from being held hostage by squatters threatening that they would withdraw their support. The Private Sector could help to bring the Political Parties together on this issue.
The Laws affecting squatting and prescriptive rights need to be revised and strengthened. Some years ago, the State had protected itself by legislating that no state land could be prescribed upon but omitted to extend any protection to private land owners. This omission needs to be urgently rectified.
The present rule for obtaining prescriptive title on private land is 12 years of undisturbed occupation; before that it was 33 years. This 12-year rule was adopted from English legislation and proved quite inappropriate for Guyanese social conditions for the following reasons:
Firstly the 12-year rule was appropriate for a highly urbanized society like England but not for a still rural society like Guyana; and secondly, in the last 25 years, Guyana has experienced one of the highest emigration rates in the world whereby more than half of the population of the country emigrated.
In this emigration, people left their property in the care of family or friends who may have themselves emigrated or died or become incapacitated. Greedy persons, knowing of the situation, would have claimed prescriptive title. When the owners returned, they were shocked to see others in possession of their property though they would have been paying the taxes and rates.
The 12-year rule should be immediately replaced by the former 33-year rule, or better still extend it to a 50-year rule.
Consideration should be given to making certain types of frivolous or dishonest or violent prescriptive claims be placed under the Criminal Law and the penalties should be strengthened.
Editor’s note: The law governing prescriptive rights has been modified.
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