Where we stand‎ > ‎News & Comment‎ > ‎


posted 20 May 2014, 21:20 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 20 May 2014, 21:21 ]
“Every time we go and move into squatters, the media reports on the issue. It is a photo of a woman holding a baby and crying. We are dealing with illegal occupants. Squatters have no rights.”

(Jairam Seemungal. Daily Express. Tuesday 20th May 2014)


Jairam Seemungal, Minister of Land and Marine Affairs
believes citizens without "legal" shelter have no rights.
When the Minister of Land and Marine Resources made this statement he was unwittingly restating the policy, begun under colonialism, that has governed land settlement in this country ever since the days of the Cedula. 
“We are dealing with illegal occupants”. Trinidad, after the indigenous people were all but wiped out, was settled in the late eighteenth century largely by French slave-owners who were given free land by the Spanish colonial government in proportion to how many slaves they brought into the island.

The slaves, of course, could not own land, they themselves being property. Appealing to legality, therefore, in itself cuts no ice: slavery was legal as was indentureship. Forming or even advocating the formation of trade unions was illegal. Ganja was legally bought and sold until quite recently. It is illegal to play a “noisy instrument”.

What is legal and what is not is not fixed and is not determined by divine sanction, but is determined largely by what interests predominate at the time particular laws are enacted and, in large part, these laws are enacted to serve the interests of the ruling groups of the time.

After emancipation in 1838, many ex-slaves left the plantations and “squatted on “crown” lands. After all slave-owners, under Spanish and British colonialism, had been allocated land free by the colonial state. If the priest could play, who is we...so to speak. But what was sauce for the ruling class goose was not sauce for the working class gander. Gopaul luck wasn’t Seepaul luck…so to speak.

The colonial government passed anti-squatting laws and put high prices on the sale of land to the ex-slaves. When the ex-slaves formed themselves into co-operatives in order to buy the land, the government ruled that only land of a certain quantity could be bought, when that did not faze the ex-slaves, they doubled the quantity of land that could be bought.

The upshot was widespread “squatting” which was, of course, illegal. The thing, though, was that because Trinidad came late to the plantation slavery party, there was much virgin land and a comparatively small population; it was, therefore, very difficult for the government to control squatting.

The point is that from the beginning of plantation Trinidad, the state decided who got land and under what conditions they got the land. The state has always been the key player in land settlement and continues to be so up to today.

Just as important is that land was allocated on the basis of social class and that continues to be so up to today. If you don’t believe me, ask the ex-Caroni workers who are ketching dey nennen to access land that was “legally” allocated to them, because they are caught up in the whirlpool of the last great land grab.

The question is who is going to control the 77,000 thousand acres of ex- Caroni land: small farmers, the ordinary citizens who are in a desperate quest for shelter or real estate speculators, wannabe agri-businessmen like Joe Pires, Balliram Maharaj and the like? Why am I asking answers and not questions? I leave that for you to answer.

As the non-entity who is sitting in the ministerial chair has stated: squatters have no rights. Squatters, it seems, are not citizens of this increasingly blighted country; the nerve of the media for publishing photos of women and crying babies after these rights-less people have their “illegal” structures torn down.

The question of access to land, the use to which land is put and the question of shelter has never been satisfactorily addressed within the capitalist economic framework. In dependent capitalist economies like ours it has hardly been addressed at all. At least, that is the perspective if you are counted among working people and the poor. For those who business fix, they may only be dimly aware that there is a “land question” that needs to be answered.