Scores of new squatters at Pine Settlement, Sangre Grande, are now living on the direct pathway of the $400 million Cumuto/Manzanilla Highway project.
Squatters have also been encroaching on private lands at Wharton Estate, Salybia and State lands at Galera Road, leading to the Toco Light House, following Government’s move to build a state-of-the-art Toco Port, which would open up the entire north-eastern region with business activity and generate jobs.
The illegal occupancies by fresh squatters have been giving the chairman of the Sangre Grande Regional Corporation Terry Rondon no end of worry, as he called on the Government to do something fast, stating the issue of squatting was totally out of control.
In the Land Settlement Agency (LSA) 2016/2017 report into the inquiry in relation to squatters regularisation, it showed that Sangre Grande has become the fastest growing squatting area in T&T.
Also in 2016 the LSA told a Joint Select Committee of Parliament, that there were 55,000 families squatting in the country. This amounted to over 200,000 people overall.
The agency’s report estimated between 7,000 to 10,000 squatting families in Sangre Grande alone.
But Rondon feels that figure may have increased within recent times by an additional 500 families, stating that there has been an invasion for lands.
“It’s madness up here,” Rondon said, referring to the land encroachment in certain parts of the northeastern region.
The LSA is authorised under the State Land Regularisation of Tenure Act, No 25 of 1998, to prevent and contain further squatting on State land and to regularise eligible existing squatters.
A person who is eligible for regularisation must have occupied a dwelling house on the property prior to January 1, 1998.
Some of the areas Rondon identified as squatting districts are the Valencia Stretch, Aripo Savanna, Bois Bande, KP Lands, Turure and Vega De Oropouche.
Though Pine Settlement has been regarded as a squatting community over the years, Rondon said within recent times new squatters have been moving into the area after purchasing one lot of State land between $10,000 to $20,000 from unscrupulous individuals.
“Not too long ago a lady came to me and say she bought land right up there. They are grabbing land,” Rondon said.
Two weeks, Rondon said he visited the area informing the squatters that they had built their homes in the direct path of the highway. “I carried a map outlining the highway’s route and showed them where their homes are blocking the pathway. If the Government wants the highway they will break down their illegal structures. At the end of the day, it’s their labour, money and time will go down the drain. That is why I took in front and asked them to desist from building.”
Rondon said some of the squatters responded rudely, while others grumbled upon hearing the news. “I did what I had to do,” he said.
Asked how many houses have been built since Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley turned the sod for the 2017 highway project, Rondon said quite a lot.
“Some are up. If you go there now they building....and by this evening you would see them move in and curtain flying and radio playing in their home.”
Along the scenic Salybia beachfront, Rondon said he also noticed that several trees had been recently bulldozed and burnt to make way for new concrete and wooden structures on private land known as Wharton Estate.
In addition to the homes, over 15 businesses operate metres from the seashore.
Rondon admitted that many years ago he wrote letters to T&TEC to help some of the business owners get electricity connection so they could earn an honest living.
After getting electricity, Rondon said the owners started subletting to the squatters.
“We (corporation) tried all how to get the land purchased from the Wharton Estate,” Rondon said. But, he said, no deal was ever brokered.
“All that time...it has been a wild, wild, west situation. People are just doing what they want. They doing everything against the law.”
Rondon said the owner of the estate has since served notice to the squatters to vacate his land.
“These squatters have been calling me to help. But I cannot. The owner has to get a demolition order to get them out. And he has started with his order.”
For years, Rondon said the corporation has been cleaning the beach to avoid a health hazard.
“Our public health inspectors have been looking at the health aspect of the beach.”
The news of the establishment of the Toco Port, Rondon said has also led to a proliferation of squatters capitalising on State and private lands.
“People are rushing for land that do not belong to them hoping to benefit when the port comes on stream. This has to stop.”
On the northern and southern sides of Galera Road, Guardian Media observed that several trees had been slashed and burnt as squatters make way for new homes. Piles of lumber and galvanise sheetings were also evident on the State land.
Rondon said some squatters have been masquerading as farmers by cultivating short-term crops, hoping the State would not zero in on them.
“Every day somebody bringing in heaps of wood, blocks, gravel and galvanise to build.”
Rondon said the ongoing problem needs to be tackled in a holistic way.
“There is a lot of bureaucracy in removing a squatter. The people to stop these squatters are not around,” Rondon complained.
Behind the Brooklyn Community Centre in Sangre Grande, Venezuelan migrants have already cut down several coconut and walnut trees on forest reserve lands to build homes.
Caretaker of the centre Clinton Moses said a villager in the community gave the migrants permission to utilise the land which belongs to the centre.
“I had to stop and chase them because what they were doing was wrong. The land belongs to the Government,” Moses said.
Moses said this was the fourth batch of Venezuelans who tried to live there.
Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat, under whose purview State lands fall in a WhatsApp message advised Guardian Media to take up the Pine Settlement squatters matter with the Ministry of Works and Transport Rohan Sinanan, as well as the LSA.
Sinanan, however, referred the issue to LSA whose CEO Hazar Hosein could not be reached for comment yesterday.