Opposition Leader Bharat Jagdeo dropped a bombshell into the political landscape when he revealed that tens of thousands of acres of land had been transferred to persons politically connected to the PNC-led administration. Ironically, these individuals included two very vociferous employees of the State Asset Recovery Agency (SARA), which work out of the Ministry of the Presidency and which have been engaged in a very high profile case alleging that 12 acres of land at Sparendaam had been sold in an opaque fashion to the former President, several Ministers and others.
Some of the beneficiaries of the highlighted land allocations have asserted that there was nothing untoward about the process since they had complied with the required procedures. However, they ignored two important points. First, that the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Guyana Lands and Survey Commission (GL&SC) has conceded there was a huge backlog of applications for land in the Commission and there needs to be some explanation, apart from fortuity, why these particular applications rose to the top of the pile. Second, why the lands, in several instances, were strategically located to service the incipient oil industry. As such, the change of land use would have dictated that a bidding process would have protected the interest of the state to receive the maximum revenues. Third, it also suggests insider knowledge. In one instance, it would appear that the foreshore of the Demerara River – defined as the space between the landline and the low waterline – from the Demerara Harbour Bridge to the mouth of the Atlantic has been sold or leased. This raises questions of the rights of landowners abutting the foreshore and other users like local fishermen’s access and use the river.
Apart from the political implications, the issue of a national land-use policy is raised. Ever since the PNC-led APNU/AFC coalition acceded to office in 2015, they have highlighted this issue but have not done anything substantive to consummate it. In fact, the wife of one of the alleged beneficiaries of the land allocation, who is Head of the Department of Environment (DoE) — which operates out of the Ministry of the Presidency—two years ago, opined to a COI into “ancestral lands”, “In the absence of proper land-use planning, productive land uses will perform poorly and this can constrain national economic growth and consequently our attainment of ‘green’, sustainable development”.
But this was nothing new. As far back as 1976, the UN had offered its official position on land use: “Land cannot be treated as an ordinary asset, controlled by individuals and subject to the pressures and inefficiencies of the market…. Private land ownership is … a principal instrument of accumulation and concentration of wealth and therefore contributes to social injustice, if unchecked, it may become a major obstacle in the planning and implementation of development schemes”.
What is needed was succinctly summarised in a report on land use composed by the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) in 2007 after widespread consultations. In summary, it proposed, in reference to agriculture, housing and commercial activities: “Given the importance of land policies for growth and development, recommendation is made that urgent steps be taken to put in place a written national policy on land distribution. This policy should constitute fully, all the components of equity. It should be a policy that is well publicized and utilized”.
“In order to promote equity in the distribution of land for agriculture, housing and commercial activities, the GL&SC should institute a policy to publicise all leases at both the national levels and particularly in the region in which the lease is to be issued. Both distributing agencies should put in place measures to prevent land grabbing, not only at the level of applicants, but also at the level of other categories of persons, including persons in the distribution of the commodity.”
In terms of the present brouhaha over claimed politically-skewed land distribution by the GL&SC, the recommendation on the publicising of all leases issued over the last two years would be useful.