The Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into African ancestral land matters on Wednesday heard from witnesses who said they were dispossessed of family lands under the Bharrat Jagdeo administration.
Joan Straughn said that in March of 2000, former president Jagdeo caused their family land at Parika, East Bank Essequibo (EBE), to be taken away and given to owner of the Two Brothers Gas Station, Shiraz Ali, of 17 Vergenoegen, EBE.
She said that the land, which was leased to the gas station owner, contained a parcel which legitimately belongs to her family as well as a section of the sea defence reserve that provides access to it. Straughn explained that that sea defence reserve portion was given to Ali by the Sea Defence Board on May 8, 2009.
The witnessed described these acts as “unjust and discriminatory.”
The woman told the CoI that the land in question was owned by her now-deceased father, to whom transport was passed in 1957. She said her grandfather had willed the land to her father.
After Parika was declared a land registration area in 1972, Straughn said that the transported property was subdivided into ten parcels of land. In 1974, she said her father was issued a certificate of title for those ten parcels.
She added that in June 11, 1983, the certificate of title of land was passed as a gift to her brother, Mark Levi, who is still the registered holder of that certificate of title of land.
Straughn said the family has been fighting to reclaim its “rightfully and legitimately owned” property for more than two decades. Ali, she noted, “unlawfully began occupying a part of their property since 1994.
According to the witness, Ali was made aware of his infraction of trespassing on numerous occasions, with even police reports being made against him, but he continued.
The CoI heard from the witness that Ali graded the land, destroyed fruit trees and dismantled an access bridge. During the period 1994 to 2001, Straughn said the family was unable to take legal action against Ali because it lacked the financial means to do so.
In 2001, however, she said an injunction was issued against Ali, restraining him from occupying their land and an interim injunction order was granted later that year by the High Court restraining Ali and his agents.
Two years later, she said the order was made interlocutory, yet Ali continues to trespass to date.
According to Straughn, in 2010, the western portion of the land was sold. Cloaking under the lease granted to him by Jagdeo, Straughn said Ali then secured an injunction to prevent her family from entering their legally-owned property.
In that very year, the witness told the CoI, the order was varied by the court, deleting her family land from the list of parcels mentioned in the injunction. Ali, she said, continues to defy the orders of the court.
The woman said that Ali placed a tank and dragline on the land, and subsequently erected a fence that also prevents access to the land.
Straughn said that in 2011, Ali was ordered by the court to remove the obstructions, but he has ignored those orders.
Straughn said the family has spent in excess of $10 million and time fighting for justice so that they will not lose their property. He noted that as a result, it decided to approach the Commission, seeking a resolution to the distress and anguish it is facing.
She also asked that the CoI considers the cost her family would have expended pursuing the matter, which is still before the court. The woman said her family was hoping to utilise the land for economic purposes by erecting a wharf and cultivating crops.
Also testifying before the CoI was Norman Dalrymple, Secretary of the Vergenoegen Agri Producers Co-op Society Limited, who also said that because of Shiraz Ali, they have been dispossessed of their land.
He said that the Agri Producers Society also experienced “government interference and racism” under the Jagdeo led administration, owing to Ali’s political connections.
Like Straughn, Dalrymple told the Commission that it is because of Ali that their land was taken way.
He pleaded with the CoI to remedy the injustice and restore the land to them as they are the legitimate, legal owners.
Meanwhile, activist Freddie Kissoon also appeared before the CoI and voiced his shock after hearing Straughn’s testimony that though the Supreme Court had made several orders against Ali, he ignored them.
He emphasised that orders of the court should be followed and sanctions be rigidly enforced for non-compliance, backed by contempt proceedings where necessary.
Kissoon, who introduced himself as a commentator, academic and historian, said he decided to appear before the CoI because of his knowledge of its subject matter and his hope to provide guidance to it in arriving at its conclusions.
In his presentation, Kissoon took particular issue with land given as a concession to business owners under a specific covenant with the state for investment construction to be pursued. The activist questioned the reason why one plot of land, in particular, located opposite the Botanical Gardens on Sheriff Street, is not being utilised for the purpose it was acquired—investment construction.
According to him, the land, with multiple acreage, was awarded to Continental Agencies in the 1980s, but to date, flouts the agreement and the concessionary status behind the granting of the land as nothing has been erected.
Kissoon argued that it is unfair for land such as that, which carries an enormous real estate value, to remain in the hands of businesses in the face of violation of a legal contract. He recommended to the CoI that should it find a breach has occurred, those lands should be reclaimed by the state.
“It is simple as that,” Kissoon passionately declared.
This witness also took issue with legislation passed in 2014 under the Donald Ramotar administration, prohibiting applications for prescriptive rights to state land. Kissoon contended that it is unfair for that law to be retroactive and should apply to people occupying state land, post-2014.
Kissoon said, therefore, that in cases where people have been on public land for in excess of 20 years—he made reference to squatters obliquely opposite the Caricom Secretariat’s annex at Turkeyen, East Coast Demerara—they should be exempted from that law, and be allowed to apply for prescriptive rights.
The CoI’s mandate is to examine and make 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 being chaired by Reverend George Chuck-a-Sang, with Lennox Caleb, Paulette Henry, David James, Professor Rudolph James, Berlinda Persaud, and Carol Khan-James serving as commissioners.