Editorial | Long Bay land saga and the PNP
Peter Phillips' undertaking to solve Jamaica's crisis of squatting and informal settlements by issuing tens of thousands of titles to landless people is likely to be a big vote-catcher for the People's National Party (PNP) at the next general election. For land, in countries with histories and social cleavages as exist in Jamaica, is an emotive issue.
But regarding the controversy over the big squatter settlement in Westmoreland - in which senior PNP figures have emerged as protagonists - Dr Phillips would have calculated that any proposal crafted by his party must balance a deep social problem against constitutionally guaranteed property rights and the rule of law.
Against that backdrop, this newspaper awaits, with eagerness, the publication of the full report and recommendations of the PNP's task force on the matter.
The official estimate is that anywhere between half a million and 900,000 Jamaicans, or up to one-third of the island's population, live in squatter, or informal, communities. Dr Phillips, during his contribution to the Budget Debate in March, put the figure at 700,000 people.
Living in such communities often means an absence of infrastructure and poor social and other services, which contributes to antisocial behaviour. And even when people possess land, the absence of legal titles leaves them with assets that can't be leveraged for wealth creation.
"Our mission in the People's National Party, in our next term, is to change that historical condition by having the most far-reaching land-titling effort ever seen in Jamaica," Dr Phillips has said. "We intend to solve this problem during the lifetime of the next PNP government."
He proposes to use up $10 billion in unclaimed refunds at the National Housing Trust to finance this project. Prime Minister Andrew Holness, too, has promised his Government's acceleration of its existing land-titling initiative.
These ideas, as broad concepts, have the support of this newspaper. They make social and economic sense. But, until all the details are clear, we withhold specific endorsement. For, as the appearance in the Hope Bay saga of Western Westmoreland Member of Parliament Wykeham McNeill and the head of the parish's local government, Bertel Moore, reminded us, politicians, in their search for votes, may drive agendas that conflict with principle.
In 2002, John and Kathleen Eugster, an American couple who had moved to Jamaica, acquired the 867 acres of land in Westmoreland, which they intended to develop. A year after the Eugsters' purchase, 37 people sought ownership of various portions of the land via adverse possession - in that they had lived on the property for more than 12 years, without permission, without having paid rent and without anyone bothering them. They hadn't, however, made any formal claim of possession. The squatters lost.
In the meantime, Mr Eugster was shot dead in 2004. His murder was believed to be related to the land dispute. Last week, a judge ruled that a stay of the 2011 vacation order should be lifted.
Mr Moore has described the court's ruling as an "injustice" and has promised to "fight to the end ... to see justice prevail for those people". Dr McNeill, for whom the squatters represent constituents and potential votes, was more circumspect in language than Mr Moore but suggests that their story has not been adequately framed and told. There is, however, no clarity on how the matter should be dealt with, although one proposal is for the Government to purchase the land.
Usually, though, in the political din, the interests, including property rights, of citizens are drowned out by electoral expedience. Since the PNP has made land a marquee issue, we watch closely to see what its take is on this one.