At the time of its closure in July 2003, Caroni’s (1975) Limited was T&T’s largest landowner, controlling 76,608 acres (31,000 hectares) of land, according to internal records. The company’s mass landholdings were never properly surveyed but data obtained by Guardian Media from an insider shows that it owned 25 per cent of the best available arable lands in the country.
Its 54,951 acres of agricultural lands included 10,963 acres on which there were factories and other buildings and 10,695 acres for residential tenants and leases.
Since then, Caroni’s assets have dwindled to the extent that only about 18,464 acres are left. In the years since the closure of the state-owned sugar company, land grabbers have occupied some acreages.
Also, more than 5,218 acres were allocated for failed mega-farms projects and ETeck parks; while government financiers have been given access to some of the land agricultural schemes which provided little or nothing to the public purse.
Wealthy contractors have set up lucrative businesses on Caroni’s lands.
People living next to vacant Caroni lands claimed parcels of it. They would begin planting coconut trees around the stolen lands, then start cultivating crops and fruit trees. Over time fences and structures were erected, businesses established and even sold or leased.
A one mile stretch from Wellington Road Junction at Picton to Wellington Gardens in Debe has been claimed by squatters, some of whom now have built concrete structures.
Shacks and orchards have sprouted up on state-owned fields in Golconda were real estate values have skyrocketed since the construction of the University of the West Indies (UWI) South campus on the M2-Ring Road, Debe.
Obliquely opposite the campus, a Siparia businessman has claimed a piece of land and built a shack there.
At Factory Road and Connector Road, Chaguanas, land grabbers have snatched hundreds of acres. So too in Golconda, Claxton Bay, Couva, St Helena and Penal.
Successive governments have given away vast acreages to friends, relatives and financiers under various programmes aimed at legitimising secret land deals.
This started shortly after Caroni closed in 2003. Even after the lands were placed under the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture in 2006, the rampant grabbing and giveaways continued
Governments’ roles in land giveaways
In 2007, then Prime Minister Patrick Manning allocated $100 million to establish nine mega-farms on lands formerly owned by Caroni. The plan was for the farms to be used to train farmers in modern agricultural techniques, as well as for food crop production on a scale that would reduce the country’s food import bill.
The mega-farms failed.
According to a Caroni insider, Manning also made 612 acres of lands available for the establishment of E-Teck parks, none of which materialised.
In 2010, when Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s People Partnership administration took office, the give-away of subsidised lands for agriculture and other purposes continued.
“In October 2011, Persad-Bissessar unveiled a new plan which would put 4,000 acres of agricultural lands for commercial food production.
“Four large farm projects were given out at Orange Grove, Jerningham Junction, Edinburgh and Caroni,” the source said.
“Cunupia Farmers Association got 500 acres, Jayzee’s in Couva got 30 acres, Caroni Green project got 450 acres.
“Under Minister Vasant Bharat eight farm sites comprising a total of 1,473 acres were given out.”
By 2014, responsibility for Caroni lands was transferred to the Ministry of Land and Marine Resources under Jairam Seemungal.
A Land for the Landless programme was launched and within five months of Seemungal taking up that portfolio and he handed out more than 6,000 Caroni VSEP leases, expedited hundreds of agriculture lease renewals, distributed thousands of certificates of comfort, implemented a state-of-the-art GIS database of state lands and formulated new policies on land management and distribution to include young farmers.
At that time 40,000 people applied for lands and the successful applicants were given lots priced between $80,000 and $175,000, depending on location.
Seemungal said these prices were based on the open market value determined by the Commissioner of Valuations and the lands were not to be sold for profit.
“It is meant to provide you with a place to build your home. In the event that the land must be disposed of by sale by you or any financial institution, the difference in the cost you pay for the land now and that of the sale price shall be paid to the state and does not belong to you,” he explained at that time.
However, the Caroni source said contractors and wealthy businesspeople exploited this programme and obtained large tracts of lands.
“People became rich off of Caroni’s lands. When we look at our records, we can see how much of the company’s assets have been given away,” the insider said.
He explained that $600 million was spent to develop agricultural estates for former Caroni workers and up to 2014, most of the estates were not in productive use.
“In the post-2000 period, we had 5,218 acres under proposed industrial use and some of that went to the NEC but in 2013 to 2014, Jack Warner took a note to Cabinet and the lands previously given to NEC went back to the State,” he said.
He said some of the lands allocated for industrial development fell into the hands of party financiers and supporters.
Conservator of Forests, Denny Dipchansingh is concerned about the illegal occupation of state lands, not only in the former sugar cane fields but also forest reserves.
He said there has been an increase in squatting.
“We have increased patrols outside of the normal working hours to prevent further encroachment and have gotten assistance from the TTPS on patrols,” he said.
“We will be liaising with the Land Management Division and a more vigorous approach will be implemented with the Commissioner of State Lands to evict illegal squatters.
“A plan of action will be implemented using a participatory approach with the farmers, with respect to an enforcement education and awareness programme,” he said.
Plant researcher and farmer Ramdeo Boondoo said successive governments have not dealt well with squatting on former Caroni lands.
“If they start to plant coconut trees or fig trees to make a border, then know they are blocking land. This is a very serious problem.
“If people want to use lands for agriculture, they should be offered leases so they could plant comfortably,” Boondoo said.
State agencies like T&TEC and WASA had given legitimacy to many landgrabbers. He said.
“It seemed anyone who has a connection in T&TEC or WASA could easily pull a string and get lights and water even though they had no ownership to the land,” Boondoo said.
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TOMORROW: Land grabbing escalated during COVID-19 lockdown.