Eight days after the semi-nude body of a woman was found near a drain in Point Fortin with her head bashed in, a mason has appeared in court for her murder.
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New squatting trends in T&T
Squatting in T&T has always been an option for low-income or no-income households, who struggle daily to survive in a fast developing Third World state, crippled by high inflation, high unemployment and competition for cheap government houses. This inability to legitimately acquire dwelling units has led to squatting on vacant parcels of state land, in many cases, in high-risk, environmentally unsafe areas.
As a result, more than 250,000 people in T&T have been squatting along old trainlines, on the banks of rivers and even along the coasts. At Kings Wharf, San Fernando, weathered wooden and galvanised shacks remain an eyesore on the coastline where they stand in disarray.
Along the old abandoned trainlines at Golconda, Marabella, Picton, Gasparillo, Williamsville and Princes Town, vast squatting communities have cropped up. Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal estimates T&T’s squatting population to be in excess of 250,000 people, while Chairman of the Land Settlement Agency Dr Allen Sammy says only about 50,000 of these squat on private lands located at South Oropouche, Fyzabad and Woodland. However, investigations by the Guardian have revealed that in recent times, a new type of squatting has started in T&T. Now some well-off citizens have started grabbing for land along with the poor and destitute.
Business owners, even those in the heart of the south city of San Fernando, have also begun squatting on pavements by erecting permanent food stalls and fixtures. The City Corporation has not dealt with these “squatters” allegedly because they have “government connections.” In the second part of this investigation, RADHICA SOOKRAJ examines the increase in squatting in some parts of south Trinidad, months after the Government closed off on a $252 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to regularise squatters.
Land grab continues
It has been months since Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar sounded a warning to squatters to desist from land-grabbing, saying any new unauthorised structures would be torn down by the State.
This was the repercussion of an election promise in May 2010 to regularise all illegal squatters, a statement that triggered a grab for land at Diego Martin, Tunapuna, Sangre Grande, Point Fortin, Cashew Gardens and parts of Arima. The Government is expected to spend $151 million to upgrade squatter communities, regularise their land titles, allow community participation/consultation and, where necessary, facilitate squatter relocation.
Squatters are also expected to benefit from $21 million in home improvement grants under a loan agreement between the Inter-American Development Bank and the T&T Government. Under the agreement, Government must repay the IDB loan some six-and-a-half years to 25 years later, while interest will be paid based on the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). However, as the Government begins squatter regularisation, unscrupulous land grabbers have taken control of some parts of Point Fortin and have begun selling land to squatters. Among the areas affected are Spring Trace, Warden Road Extension and the Gaza Strip.
Several squatters said they paid as much as $1,000 for a lot of land at Warden Road. One squatter at Salazar Trace, Point Fortin, said he paid $8,000 for a house and two lots of land for which he received a certificate of comfort in 2005. But while such transactions have taken place over the years, a new trend of “high class squatting” is surfacing, particularly in Golconda and Point Fortin. At Warden Road Extension, long- established squatters have complained that people who already have homes are building concrete structures in the area, because they have “government connections.” A squatter, Venice Benjamin, said she was concerned about the increased numbers of squatters putting up concrete homes, but not living in them at Warden Road.
“A lot of people have their house but they coming to Point Fortin and they blocking up land because they know the Government will give them a deed of comfort,” she said. “These people don’t live here...Just behind my house a couple came and they started to build a concrete house. They never came back. If you poor, would you be able to afford a concrete house? “The house is not finished but people working on it. I believe if you want to squat to get out of rent, then you will be eager to move into the house. Why build a house and then leave it? It must be that they have another place to live,” Benjamin said there were two spots close by where concrete structures were built. Both houses were flat with a solid concrete foundations, but no roof.
Benjamin said since she moved into the area in 2009, a dozen new houses have sprung up, but she said she did not know some of the owners. The majority of new squatters, she claimed, came from Egypt Village, Hollywood and New Village, Point Fortin. Meanwhile, high on the hills of Warden Road Extension is an area known as the “Gaza.” Here seven new structures can be seen. The one room shacks were built with plyboard and outfitted with clear louvre panes. Some of the home owners were seen hammering nails on the roof and installing windows. More than 15 acres of forest were cleared to facilitate these new squatters.
One of the squatters, who requested anonymity, said: “People have to live you know. What they want us to do, commit crime? We trying to have a decent, honest life like anyone else.” Another of the established occupants said she got permission to build her home two years ago from a man called Fredo Bernett, who died earlier this year. The woman, who lives with her four children, said Bernett encouraged most of the squatters to clear land and occupy parts of Warden Road. It is believed that Bernett also collected funds from those he granted land. “Fredo was the man who told me to come in here,” she said. “There were outsiders who were coming in and he started to get the people whom he knew to move in here...Some people pay, but I didn't.”
Residents of Spring Trace, Point Fortin, said they also heard of “rich, big shot people” blocking up land in Point Fortin. “They cannot come on this side. We want to know who you are if you come in here. On this side we look out for each other. Most of the people who squat are young people,” one of them said.
One resident, Carlton Bernett, admitted he charged squatters $600 to clear lands. He, however, denied he sold land to squatters. “What! Sell government land? That is lockup. I never sell government land to anybody,” Bernett said. He admitted, however, to helping out fellow squatters by marking off one plot parcels and clearing the land. “I charge $400 to clear and $200 to make boka and burn,” he said.
Since he started clearing land, Bernett said more than 300 squatters have settled in Point Fortin on a seven acre plot of land. He denied that high-class squatters were coming in from outside to occupy land.
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said there was need to put in place an effective land use management policy as well as to review the present legislation relevant to the Squatter Regularisation Act 25 of 1998.
Business squatting in South
Meanwhile, at Golconda, residents say a prominent businessman who operates a mobile food outlet and owns several properties is believed to have occupied two plots of state land off the M2 Ring Road in Debe and in Princes Town. A resident of Golconda said: “This man so shameless...We all know that he owns (name called) but he living here because he want land. How much land you could live on? When he dead you think he could carry the land?” The Guardian made several visits to the area, but was never able to see the businessman at the house.
Meanwhile, at Cipero Street, San Fernando, business owner Marie Emmanuel has set up permanent residence next to the pavement, right under the noses of the City Corporation. Over the years, the food handler has managed to secure water connection, electricity, telephone and even Direct TV, although she has no legitimate claim to the land. However, Emmanuel says she pays $1,000 in rent monthly to the Corporation. She said she had been occupying the spot since the 1980’s and could not be considered a squatter. “I buy this spot for $20,000 from a woman who used to sell here in the 1980's...Everything I have I work for,” she said.
She noted, however, that many illegitimate fixtures were being erected along the streets of San Fernando. She said the City Corporation should remove anyone who did not pay taxes or rent to the City Corporation, but regularise those who did. San Fernando mayor Marlene Coudray could not be reached for comment but in an earlier interview she said attempts were being made to regularise squatters.
Last December, 257 families from 26 squatting communities scattered across the country received their Certificates of Comfort (COC). The Prime Minister said at the time that statutory leases would be give, followed by deeds of ownership.
She said there was a need for a land use management policy and a review of Act 25 of 1998 by the Ministry of Housing, the LSA and the Attorney General’s department, since this will allow Government to identify the difficulties involved and correctly allocate lands. Persad-Bissessar also pointed out that 20 per cent of the population was living below the poverty level and 20 per cent are squatting on State and private lands. Moonilal, noted that the LSA had received some 23,300 applications from squatters for regularisation while there are approximately 125,000 applicants for houses. He also said measures would be put in place to strengthen the LSA and its institutions and resources as well as address imbalances which might have taken place over the past eight years.
• Unoccupied concrete homes under construction
• New wooden shacks spring up
• Business owner squats on Sando pavement