GUYANA: Mocha confrontation – Editorial by Stabroek News

Stabroek News

By January 6, 2023

In this country commonplace problems in need of practical solutions are frequently prone to metamorphose into political controversies. Never mind that they are in essence not political issues; the leaden hand of politics leaves its imprint on everything here. And so it is in the case of the situation in Mocha: on the one hand the allegations of discrimination reverberate around, and on the other the response echoes across the airways that progress is being stymied. And all this because a group of squatters refuses to remove from land earmarked for a new road between Eccles and New Diamond.

It would seem that they are not actually in the path of the road itself, but on land adjacent to it, and that the proposed highway will pass behind their structures. It may be that the position of the Ministry of Housing has shifted over the months, since in September of the year before last, according to residents of the area appropriately named Pepper Field, they had been told to reposition their houses so they would face the new road. While this would have recommended itself as an offer to be accepted, especially if some kind of compensation were to be paid, the residents did not take the Ministry up on this. As one resident explained, if people didn’t get permission to build there, then no one was going to do it.           

Subsequent to that, the Ministry seems to have decided that they had to be removed altogether. When the residents enquired from the engineers why they had to move when it was not planned to drive the road through their houses, according to an inhabitant they were told they would not be able to deal with the noise. Those who took up residence illegally on Pepper Field are not newcomers; they have been there for between thirty and fifteen years. Inevitably, therefore, since they have lived in the locality for so long undisturbed by the authorities, they have a strong sense of attachment to it and a feeling they have a right to remain. The situation is complicated by the fact that most of them earn their living there, so it is not just a question of moving house.

While some of them run small shops, a number farm and keep animals. One man, for example, has 60 cows, so for them to move into two-bedroom flats as they are being offered, is to destroy their livelihoods. There was some very early offer of a playfield at Farm and one at Herstelling, but the residents say there was no real discussion about where they might want to go. After an initial visit, they were promised further meetings, but these did not happen. However, as individuals they were invited by phone into the Ministry, most of whom did not go because they understood their strength lay in being dealt with as a group.

One month ago the Ministry offered houses in the Little Diamond Housing Scheme to the remaining families in Pepper Field. It also said: “Every effort by the Ministry has been met with harsh, baseless and irrational resistance,” despite the fact that like others, the squatters had been offered full compensation for their properties, and a free residential house. More than 20 families had been relocated and had built new homes through government compensation it was said. In the view of those who remain, however, the compensation is insufficient, because the valuations done on their properties are no longer relevant in the current economic situation.

The biggest problem, however, remains the matter of how people still in Pepper Field will make their living if they move, especially those with cows, and in the case of one resident, sheep too. Since clearly these cannot be accommodated in a housing scheme at Little Diamond, the Ministry’s view is the owners should sell them.

It has not, it appears, occurred to the authorities that it makes no sense to rehome a family but at the same time destroy their livelihood so they no longer have the means to support themselves, even if for a time they would have money from the animal sale. They are being asked also to surrender a whole lifestyle, with farmers being required to adapt to an urban existence with no indication of where they would work, implying as it does an eventual drop in their standard of living. While the shop-owners could arguably become street vendors, this too lacks the physical and monetary advantages of a shop, and in any case is an occupation the government would probably like to see eliminated.

Politics enters into the story because the squatters are African, and the government is Indian, and the opposition has now taken up their case. According to Minister Croal the group had initially agreed to move but subsequently the matter became political.  “The Mocha issue took on a political twist… an anti-developmental twist because it seems that the opposition doesn’t want rapid growth. They encouraged the persons to not accept, without a solution. They didn’t even encourage the people to come in and engage us,” he was quoted as saying.

A few days ago there was a seven-and-a-half hour stand-off between residents, members of the parliamentary opposition and Mayor Ubraj Narine, who was certainly operating well outside the  boundaries of his normal GT jurisdiction.  By this time, the Ministry had managed to persuade most of the squatters to remove, and at the end of last year the hold-outs had been reduced to seven in number. As of this week, the total is now five.

After warning notices, on Tuesday the Ministry moved in with its heavy equipment to demolish the residences, and Ms Anita Beaton saw her bridge, store-room and the concrete porch of her shop razed by an excavator. She was quoted as saying: “We are not collecting their money because we are not properly compensated. We engage [the ministry] up to the 22nd of December and they putting notice that we are not engaging − we ain’t collect housing money. We have livestock and they want us to sell them out, why? Why?”

Not all of what the opposition had to say on the subject was irrelevant. Mr Norton pointed out that once there was a road then the property value of the land where the residents’ houses stood would go up. It is certainly true that roads attract business, so if the area where the inhabitants once lived was distributed to others at some point, the allegation of discrimination of some kind, even if not necessarily of a racial nature as the Opposition Leader is insisting, could be made.

In a letter to this newspaper yesterday in response to another matter, Mr Croal extolled the government record on housing, including in relation to squatting settlements which he said had been reduced from nineteen to thirteen. The problem is not all squatting settlements are the same, and the measures which should be taken to address them should vary according to the circumstances of those who live in them. In the Pepper Field case the residents are in a completely different category from those, say, in Parika Sea Dam. Apart from anything else, they are able to make a living and support themselves adequately, so they have a great deal more to lose financially speaking if they are moved, than does the last-named community.

The Minister has blamed the opposition for the turn of events, but he is refusing to acknowledge his own Ministry’s role in the story. While he says it was always trying to engage the residents, as with the government as a whole, it really does not do consultation well. After the first meeting, the community was promised more, but none came. As related, the tactic was to contact individuals inviting them to come into the Ministry, an invitation which many disregarded, and it is on this that its assertions about engagement are based. The method is clear: it is easier to undermine a group stance and persuade people to take a certain course of action if they are dealt with on an individual basis than if they are dealt with as a whole.

The residents still have not been told

The residents still have not been told why it is they have to move when the road will pass behind their houses, and whether if after the road is built their area will be given out to businessmen or others to occupy. If the Ministry of Housing wonders why it is not trusted, it can start there. And then there is the matter of the farm animals. Surely it could have done better than the offer of a New Diamond apartment. Was it really not prepared to continue discussions about relocation for the farmers, for example, so they could continue with their traditional occupation? Does it really want to be accused of achieving rehousing at the cost of destroying the livelihoods of those rehoused?

Now that the Opposition Leader and party members have moved in and the accusatory tone has achieved an unhealthy level of shrillness, it is unlikely that any compromise will be found for the remaining residents of Pepper Field. The government excavators will no doubt return and finish off what they started earlier in the week, if for no other reason than this has now been transformed into the traditional PPP/C-APNU confrontation. Ideally the Ministry of Housing should go back to negotiating, but one would have to be an unreconstructed optimist to believe that will happen at this stage.

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