Gov’t to be More Vigilant in Addressing Squatting

The Squatter Management Unit will be more vigilant this year in dealing with the matter of squatting, which is a growing problem across the island, says Senior Director of the Land Administration and Management Division in the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, Dr. Mohini Kiswani.
According to data from the Ministry, there are some 595 squatter settlements island-wide, with 80 per cent located on government-owned lands. The parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew have the largest number of informal settlements at about 16 per cent.
Dr. Kiswani tells JIS News that while the practice of “capturing” government and privately-owned lands is illegal, it also has a variety of negative environmental, socio-economic and public health concerns, as sometimes, persons squat in environmentally fragile and disaster prone-areas or areas that have been earmarked for development.
She notes that the Unit, which was set up last June, has a four-pronged approach to deal with squatting, to comprise prevention, regularization, relocation and in extreme cases eviction.
Since its establishment, the Unit has been working towards the formulation of a policy for the management of squatter settlements; preventing incidents of further squatting; identifying and selecting squatter sites for regularization, relocation and or eviction; mapping and updating data on existing conditions and maintaining a comprehensive database of squatter settlements.
According to Dr. Kiswani, one of the major goals of the Unit is to guide informal settlers through the process of regularizing their informal settlements, noting that eviction is a last resort.
“Jamaica has been growing over the last two decades, and there has been growth in population, relative growth in economic activities.. as such there is a greater demand for people to own their own property.
We are cognizant of the fact that people need to live, they need to find a proper place where they can be safe and while we carry out eviction, it is really a last resort,” she points out.
In that regard, several informal settlers are being assisted to acquire legal tenure, and site visits have been made to various squatter settlements to gather vital information, which will inform the process.
Outlining the procedure for regularization, Dr. Kiswani says in the case of government-owned lands, persons must write a letter to the Commissioner of Lands indicating interest. Based on the availability and suitability of the land for the purpose requested, the Commissioner will refer the recommendation to the Land Divestment Committee, which will review the application and make its recommendation to the Minister, who will give final approval.
She explains that once the application is successful, the government will charge a rental based on the number of years that the applicant has occupied the land. “We charge them rent at the current market rate for the last five years, because if we leave them without collecting anything, it would be unfair to people, who uphold the law. Charging squatters rental would not only deter people from squatting but also reinforce that there is a price to pay for their occupancy,” she says.
As it regards privately-owned lands, persons must receive permission from the landowner.
Meanwhile, Director of the Squatter Management Unit, Basil Forsythe, says that private landowners must implement effective measures to prevent informal settlers from occupying their lands.
He informs that under the Trespass Act, the private landowner has to take action against the squatter within the first year of occupation, so as to prevent the illegal occupier from enjoying quiet possession.
If a private landowner leaves his land unsupervised and leaves the squatter undisturbed for 12 years or more, then the informal settler can claim the land through the process of adverse possession under the Limitations of Actions Act.
Outlining certain measures that private landowners can implement to prevent squatting, Mr. Forsythe mentions the construction of fences around properties; avoid leaving the land idle for extended periods; placing ‘no trespassing’ signs along properties; hiring a caretaker to monitor the property; as well as leasing or selling the unused land.
In the meanwhile, he informs that the database being developed, will provide accurate data to effectively plan and facilitate interventions to deal with the growing problem of squatting. He says that the Ministry will be depending on other relevant agencies to assist in providing data for input into the system.
Agriculture and Lands Minister, Roger Clarke, while giving an update on the work of the Unit last October, informed that in collaboration with the National Land Agency (NLA), more than 10 evictions were conducted, based on ministerial approval.
He noted that persons have also been calling toll-free hotline(1-888 9777 344) to report incidents of squatting as well as to obtain information relating to the prevention monitoring regime.
He said that material had been developed and was being circulated to the public to increase awareness of the impact of squatting and the options available to landowners to combat the problem.
The Unit works in collaboration with the National Housing Trust, National Housing Development Corporation, National Environment and Planning Agency, Jamaica Constabulary Force, Island Special Constabulary Force, Parish Councils, NLA, and the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management.

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