Mahaicony residents are alarmed at the ongoing construction of fish ponds at Drill, Mahaicony, saying it has restricted their access to state land reserves traditionally used for cattle grazing and fishing, and resulted in the degradation of several kilometres of seaside mangrove plants.
Residents of Cottage, Mahaicony and neighbouring areas blame the Omprakash ‘Buddy’ Shivraj fish ponds’ construction for gates being placed in the fishing grounds near the sea defence and the presence of armed men, which have kept them away from areas they have been venturing into for years. However, the Mahaica Mahaicony Abary/ Agricultural Development Authority (MMA/ADA) has said a gate recently constructed at the Bellamy dam was intended to prevent the destruction of infrastructure and the theft of property, which nearby property owners have been complaining about. In addition, MMA/ADA says that while vegetation was recently removed to facilitate drainage works, it has denied the removal of large areas of mangrove plants.
According to residents, the recent blockade coincided with the construction of fish ponds at Drill by businessman Shivraj and his partners, and it has left many persons fearful of travelling aback the community, where armed men are present and gunfire is heard regularly.
A resident at Cottage, who took this newspaper to the area, related that the works began some eight months ago. “At first, we used to come behind here and catch fish without feeling scared,” he said. “Now, if yo come you have to be scared because the people associated with the project just don’t want us behind here.”
He said that several weeks ago, a relative of his had travelled along the road between Cottage and Drill and he noted that the man was stopped by several men who carried huge guns at their sides. He said that his relative was told that he should not be in the area, since he “could end up in some serious trouble.” The man noted too that several cattle farmers were concerned about the situation, since their “free movement” on the state lands in the area was restricted as a result of the gates being put up to block access to Drill.
A cattle farmer said that he had been venturing into the area for years, “even decades and right now you have these fellas who bought over the lands near the state lands, just making you feel frighten to go there.” He said that after the 2005 floods, the Ministry of Agriculture had advised farmers to graze their cows in the area and he noted that at the time no one indicated which sections of the area were privately owned.
“As far as I am concerned, this area here where I graze cows belongs to the state and I think that somebody is hiding something from the public eye, because all these men with guns and the eerie feeling you get when you go behind there now just tells me that something is not right,” added. “Imagine on weekends the amount of gunfire we, the people in this area, hear! Is like a army at the back there,” the man also noted.
A former regional administrator of Region 5 told this newspaper this week that the lands located close to the seaside at Drill and Cottage were once the property of the state and were later sold to someone in the area. He noted that there were moves by Shivraj and Rudolph Gajraj of the MMA/ADA to buy the lands there and according to him, the duo had planned to construct the fish ponds.
Gajraj, however, told this newspaper recently that neither he nor the MMA/ADA is involved in any private arrangement with Shivraj in his fish ponds project. He said that the lands in the area are freehold, being privately owned, while adding that “it is a normal practice for us to allow control of a reserve access to proprietors whose lands are adjacent to that reserve.”
Gajraj noted that Shivraj owns the front lands on both sides of the reserve. In 2010, he said that Shivraj “asked to construct a road on the reserve and build a bridge across the Bellamy at his expense.” He said that the MMA gave the businessman approval along with its own specifications, including drawings, for both projects. The works were completed at a cost of $27.5M. While the bridge is owned by Shivraj, the dam remains the property of the state under MMA’s control. “We have put a gate on it and allowed them a key. The MMA will not allow the destruction of the road by others who have no business there,” he said.
Gajraj explained that the area is faced with the problem of the presence of cattle on the Bellamy dam, which he noted is being addressed at the moment. He said that “initially we are allowing all proprietors in the area to control this dam adjacent to their estates in exchange for their responsibility to care the dam.” Many of the proprietors have been complaining that cattle owners/herders have been destroying the infrastructure, and stealing their property, he noted. With the new works in the area now, “we have to take some steps to prevent these happenings,” he added.
Shivraj could not be reached after several attempts were made by this newspaper to contact him within the past week.
Meantime, during the visit last week by this newspaper, the dying roots of several acres of mangrove plants lay along Cottage Dam and persons in the area said that the plants had not received the required moisture from seawater, which would usually rise in the area with the tide.
A farmer noted that the mangrove plants located along the coastline at Cottage were being “bulldozed” by contracting firm BK International. Residents added that MMA resources were being utilized by the owners of the fish ponds to construct the infrastructure associated with the fish ponds.
Gajraj, however, said that BK International is building a major sluice at Cottage to serve the Mahaica/Mahaicony area. The MMA, he noted, is constructing a new sea defence dam and façade drain from Cottage to Farm, leading to the Mahaicony River. Apart from sea defence, this major work will provide for drainage and irrigation control for approximately 1,200 acres of front lands between the existing Bellamy canal and the new façade under construction, he said.
‘These projects, like all others, would warrant the clearing of minimal vegetation for their execution, with the earthworks which the MMA is doing by force account requiring more than the sluice construction,” he said.
He added that, “it is simply not true that large areas of mangrove have been destroyed by BK International in the area. The only vegetation cleared by them is where they are building the sluice.”
Chair of the Mangrove Secretariat Annette Arjoon-Martins visited the area some two weeks ago but she noted that there was no issue where the mangroves in the area were concerned. An official at the Ministry of Agriculture also noted when contacted this week that the mangroves which were being bulldozed were on private lands and he advised that the mandate of the Mangrove Secretariat did not include the protection of mangroves located on private lands.
He noted, however, that the plants which are located along the coastline should be considered as belonging to the state. He did not comment further.