Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

POPULATION-GUYANA: Oh For a Place to Call Home

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Mar 28 1999 (IPS) - Whokumchand Ramotar is a small-scale farmer at Crane Village just west of the city. Last week, the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CHPA) served him with a notice of removal. He has been squatting on state-owned land for more than a decade.

The removal notice is part of Housing Minister’s Shaik Baksh’s move to evict thousands of people living illegally on state reserves. Ramotar is not a happy man.

” All this hard work to build my home can’t go down the drain,” says the middle aged farmer. “I had applied to the Ministry for a house lot, but was told that I did not qualify. I then decided to squat. There was no other choice.”

Ramotar’s plight is similar to that of thousands of Guyanese who live in a country the size of Britain – 215,000 sq kms – but whose population is some 750,000. Population density is less than 10 persons per sq km, but still there is a mad scramble for land on which to build houses.

Odinga Lumumba, government’s Advisor on Empowerment matters, suggests that if the authorities had the money to carry out infrastructural development on state lands in the main urban areas, there would be a virtual stampede by at least 10,000 families for lots.

“The problem came between 1985 and 1992. The government of Desmond Hoyte had, during that period, distributed only 125 lots in small schemes on the coast and so there was a backlog. If everything works right then this current government would have distributed about 24,000 lots between 1992 and the end of this year. The problem was with the backlog,” says Lumumba.

Despite all this, the Housing Ministry has been sending in demolition teams to several coastal and urban areas in recent months to remove hundreds of squatters from private and state- owned land.

In one case, the University of Guyana campus, just eight kms east of commercial Georgetown, lost several hectares of land to squatters many of whom have built three bedroom houses just a few metres from the engineering faculty building.

But the demolition exercises have not been smooth sailing for officials.

Angry residents have retaliated on several occasions, blocking roads and sometimes being involved in violent clashes with teams. In some instances, fully armed and battle-ready riot police squads have accompanied demolition crews for fear of violent clashes with desperate villagers.

Others have sought the intervention of opposition parliamentarians.

These politicians have sometimes accused authorities of racial discrimination in deciding who gets moved or not, while the government itself has faced pressure from its supporters to overlook areas from which it picks up most of its votes.

“Even if we give out house lots to everybody, the other problem is that people have no money to build. So what we are doing is working on a programme to encourage banks to provide low interest 30-year mortgages to people so as to ease the squeeze,” says Lumumba.

Current lending rates range from eight to 18 percent.

The state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation is among the agencies which have lost dozens of hectares of land to squatters, most of them determined to live in the lower coastal and urban areas.

Pertab.K.Balram, National Coordinator for Settlements at the Housing Ministry says his department is monitoring the demolition of 150 squatter communities across the country.

“We are doing our best to send out signals that it would not be tolerated,

but people are desperate,” he says.

” We try to move in if we see someone putting up a fence or simply weeding an empty plot. Already there are 60,000 to 70,000 people living illegally in squatting areas, some for 30 years. Those can’t be moved easily.”

Government policy is to regularise the schemes if the land is not needed by the state for development purposes such as highways or for drainage and irrigation projects.

Cadastral surveys are carried out and state departments like the Health Ministry encouraged to work with residents before land titles are granted.

But, say some observers, the irony is that in a country with such vast land resources, successive administrations have failed to successfully redirect people away from urban areas to the interior where millions of hectares of rich, virgin lands are available.

An estimated 90 percent of the population seem to prefer to live on a narrow coastal strip of land, leaving most of the vast interior and hinterland regions practically bare.

Amerindians who comprise about six percent of the population live in scattered settlements in the interior, along with gold miners and loggers.

The 25-sq km capital of Georgetown and its suburbs is said to be home to about 200,000 people and with squatter settlements both in urban Georgetown and on the outskirts, population pressure is becoming a source of worry for officials.

Some persons here believe that efforts to populate the interior have failed in the last 30 years, because government has not moved to put in the necessary infrastructure such as running water and electricity.

Several coastal districts still suffer from serious water problems, although the government is right now negotiating with the World Bank and other multilateral agencies for loans in an effort to deal with this situation.

A plan by businessman Stanley Ming to build access roads opening unused land connecting the east and west coasts and some southern districts beyond the main international airport, was dismissed as by Cabinet Secretary Roger Luncheon last year.

Observers say that position was taken only because Ming supports the main opposition People’s National Congress.

Nothing has happened since, but Ming and his pioneering band say they are determined to go ahead even though the land belongs to the state.

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