General Manager of the Mahaica, Mahaicony, Abary/Agricultural Development Authority (MMA/ADA) Aubrey Charles yesterday testified that as far as he knows, the Abary Cattle Ranchers Association had never raised any issue with regards to compensation for land lost.
Commissioner Lennox Caleb, who made the enquiry, did not press Charles on the matter when he appeared before the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into African ancestral lands and other land matters. However, Charles also told the Commission that the land to the east of the conservancy, which the ranch is also claiming, has not been occupied for about 30 years and no fees have been paid on it.
Charles’ appearance before the tribunal came nearly a week after Chairman of the ranch, Hemraj Kissoon, testified before the CoI.
Kissoon had stated that 2,000 acres of land were taken by the MMA/ADA to the east of the conservancy, when it was constructed. He made further claims that the MMA had not provided the ranchers with reasons as to why the land was being taken away.
Charles, however, told the commission that the grounds were communicated. He gave four reasons for the MMA/ADA Board’s decision: the fact that the land had not been occupied for over 30 years by the company; that they were not paying charges for that portion of land to the MMA/ADA; that there are estates which run along the east bank of the Berbice River which extend inland so consideration was being made for the possibility that those settlers would request state lands; and that there had been a petition signed by cattle and cash crop farmers who owned estates along the river, and who claimed that they had lost cattle to cowboys from the Abary cattle ranch, and had crops trampled by their cattle.
Charles, however, related that the latter was the only reason not communicated to them when the decision, made by the MMA/ADA Board, was relayed.
In relation to the title of the land, Charles told the commission that the Association’s title was renewed after the company would have paid off their debt to the entity, while noting that the company is in the habit of owing the MMA/ADA millions of dollars. He challenged the Association to produce receipts to prove otherwise.
Charles noted that it is not the policy to renew titles for land for which charges are owed. He also later noted that titles are usually renewed three months prior to their expiration.
The manager told the tribunal that as of the year 1999, the Abary Cattle Ranch Association owed the MMA in excess of $20 million. He said, however, that the board, after representation was made by the Association, made the decision to waive the sum, which allowed the ranchers to pay a lesser fee to settle the debt.
But following this, no further payments were made, he stated. From 2000 to 2013, the MMA/ADA would engage the court to retrieve the money and a judgment was made in their favour. Charles stated that it was in 2014 that Kissoon’s daughter came to the MMA/ADA, met with the former Chairman of the board, and made a commitment to repay the money.
As promised, the woman paid the outstanding amount; the payment exceeded what was owed, as Charles related that she paid about $33 million.
Charles told the commission that months following the payment, a land survey, a prerequisite for lease renewal, had still not been brought in.
He said that when Kissoon’s daughter finally brought the survey in, it covered 7,784 acres. As a result, Charles said the title they received covered only that amount, which is also the amount they had been paying charges for over the past decades.
He said that they received a letter from the ranchers objecting to only being given title for that amount of land and requesting the title to the land on the east of the canal. He said it was then he related the reasons for not doing such, and pointed out that all payments made to the MMA/ADA were only for the 7,784 acres.
Farmers owe over $700 million
According to Charles, a total of over 13,000 acres of land on the upper reaches of the Abary River became the property of the Abary Cattle Ranch after the title was transferred.
He said that in 1997, the MMA was created, and through an act of parliament, gained the mandate to administer all state lands in Region 5, and manage its drainage and irrigation.
Charles acknowledged that when the MMA/ADA scheme began, a significant portion of state lands which were held by the ranch were “usurped” and became a part of the conservancy, as was the case with the Abary cattle ranch.
He noted too that during phase 1 of the MMA/ADA scheme, the main canal which was built divided the remaining land associated with the ranch in two, and that the company occupied the larger half, the 7,784 acres.
He noted that with the division of the land by the canal, the land to the east of the conservancy became swampy. [This was his explanation for why the land has remained unoccupied all these years.]
When Kissoon appeared before the commission, he complained of flooding, and opined that until the other phases of the MMA/ADA scheme were complete, flooding would continue to be an issue for farmers.
Charles told the tribunal yesterday that the problem with flooding in those areas is actually related to the maintenance of the drainage and irrigation system, the finance for which comes from farmers, who are delinquent in their payments.
The witness said that as of last December, farmers owe the MMA in excess of $700 million.
He noted that while farmers’ complaints are usually aired in the media, what is not publicised is that the farmers are not paying fees and that the MMA does not get subventions so the works are financed when fees are paid.
Meanwhile, Newell Dennison, acting Chairman of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission, also made an appearance before the CoI yesterday. However, his statements were merely tendered into evidence and he will appear before the commission at a later date.
Dennison is being supported by a team of lawyers, led by Senior Counsel Ralph Ramkarran.
The CoI, chaired by Reverend George Chuck-A-Sang, with Berlinda Persaud, Professor Rudolph James, David James, Paulette Henry, Caleb, and Carol Khan James as commissioners, is tasked with examining and making recommendations to resolve all the issues and uncertainties surrounding the individual, joint or communal ownership of land acquired by freed Africans and other matters relative to land titling. It is hearing testimony at the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission.