Vergenoegen Co-op claims lands being illegally occupied

The representative of another Vergenoegen co-op society appeared before the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into ancestral land issues on Monday and alleged that businessman Shiraz Ali has been illegally occupying 600 acres of the society’s land along the East Bank Essequibo.

Harvey Meusa, called Harvey Holder, Secretary of the Vergenoegen Agriculture Land Co-op Society, also known as the Ankoko Sugarcane Producers Society, testified before the tribunal at the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission (GLSC) headquarters, where he described the situation as a “grave prolonged injustice” against the society.

Meusa said the society gained a lease to the lands in 1970.

Asked whether he was familiar with the Vergenoegen Agri Producers Co-op Limited, which also had a representative testify before the commission recently, Meusa related that the lands were all within the same jurisdiction, and he said the entire parcel is approximately 850 acres.

Ali has occupied all of the lands, he said.

The issue began in 1987 and Meusa had stated that Ali, the owner of the Two Brothers Gas Station, had initially only taken over 100 acres of their land. That portion, he explained, had been cultivated for rice, but Ali had reportedly let his cattle roam in the area and they destroyed the crops.

The man said that the other acres were subjected to flooding, an issue the government had promised to assist with but never delivered on. Ali, however, would allegedly use his machinery to clear the land and build a canal before occupying the remaining space.

The matter would be taken to court by the Co-op but it was subsequently dismissed.

In a letter sent out in response to the testimonies of witnesses against Ali at the CoI earlier this month, the businessman said that in 1987 he was granted permission by the Government of Guyana to occupy the lands for cattle grazing.

He further stated that in 1995, Justice Burch-Smith ruled against the Ankoko Sugar producers Co-op Society, in a case that had been before the High Court since 1991.

In fact, he stated that the Ankoko Sugar producers Co-op Society (now the Vergenoegen Agri Producers Co-op Society Limited) was ordered to pay him $10,000 after the matter was dismissed for the now contested land.

“…Mr Burch-Smith dismissed our matter even though the Commissioner of Lands and Surveys then, Mr Archer, was summonsed to court and said before the Chief Justice, then Ms Desiree Bernard, that the man’s occupation was illegal. He even went on to ask if the court could grant some time so that we could reach a compromise so as to accommodate Mr Shiraz. The man quite bluntly said in front our presence that he got his money and he’s going to get what he wants…,” Meusa said of the matter on Monday.

He related being told that Ali had applied for 250 acres of land that belonged to the adjoining society, which was reportedly advertised for cancellation.

“The problem is that Mr Shiraz Ali even though he wasn’t given land—he had applied but the commissioner said quite clearly that land wasn’t given to him—he went on Ankoko’s land and occupied it,” Meusa added.

“I even met Shiraz and I said, ‘Look you wanted land, you have the means. Why even bother and try to dispossess poor people when you could apply and get state land?’ I made those recommendations to him. He told me he didn’t know the land concerned me,” Meusa claimed.

‘Hard to comprehend’

“…We keep meetings and we always try to enquire on what is the next course of action, because we felt that we had a strong case and it was established then, even before the court, by the Commissioner of the Lands and Surveys, that the man’s occupation was illegal,” Meusa said of the matter.

“…So, I cannot understand a person having lease, having a permit to occupy for agricultural purposes, and here it is a man trespassing is before the court, don’t have anything, and you dismiss my matter. It’s hard to comprehend,” he said.

Asked if he had ever visited the GLSC about the matter, Meusa said yes, and related that he had done so on numerous occasions.

“I even went because when I made a statement in front of the judge, the Chief Justice Desiree Bernard, she summoned and made sure that Mr Archer (former Commissioner of GLSC) came to court in her chambers and he stated that Shiraz Ali did apply for that plot of land—it wasn’t given to him, but maybe someone within his office or the department has given him some assurance, and based on that assurance, he went and occupied. That was established,” Meusa related.

He argued that the law, within his understanding, makes it so that once land is issued to one person, it cannot just be given to another party, as he noted that the lease was “never written off” nor was the land ever repossessed.

To his knowledge, the matter is still engaging the attention of the court.

Duty

Commissioner Carol Khan-James put to the witness that when the government issues you a lease to a piece of land, it is not its duty to police that land. “The government gave you that land to occupy it, to meaningfully occupy it, to take care of it, to use it, for a term of years, to enjoy your occupation. And the government’s duty is to collect their rent and to ensure that you are in occupation…Do you agree with me?” she asked.

“Yes, but let me say further. We speak about duty. Now the land was given for agricultural purposes, agriculture cannot thrive without drainage and irrigation. Here it is the lands and surveys department is collecting rent but haven’t put in an inch of infrastructural work, but only promised to do same over the years,” Meusa countered.

Khan-James then suggested to Meusa that his recommendation to the commission be that if lands are issued, they should be in proper condition so it can be used for beneficial occupation, to which he agreed.

Meusa then opined that once lands are issued for agricultural purposes, it should be the responsibility of the government to facilitate drainage and irrigation.

Millions lost

The society is seeking compensation for damage to crops done over time, and is asking for the return of the lands to their rightful owners.

Asked by Commissioner Paulette Henry to put a cost to how much they would have lost over the years, Meusa said “millions.” But after Henry continued to press, he stated that the sum would be in excess of $10 million.

He indicated that when Ali occupied the lands, work had already been done to the fields, including the construction of two heavy-duty bridges to accommodate the passage of equipment, and the construction of two canals.

He noted, however, that when Ali had commenced squatting, the land had been heavily flooded.

Earlier this month, Ali, in a press release, refuted the claims made by Joan Straughn and Norman Dalrymple, Secretary of the Vergenoegen Agri Producers Co-op Society Limited, who both testified before the commission.

Straughn had claimed that the land being leased by Ali contained a parcel of land that belonged to her family, as well as a section of the sea defence.

Dalrymple, like Straughn, had cited political interference as the cause of the co-op’s land being dispossessed, and said that it was because of Ali’s connections.

But in his letter, Ali denied any ties to the People’s Progressive Party, under which he is accused of having benefited.

“The claim that Jagdeo gave me the land was preposterous, since I was never friendly with the People Progressive Party (PPP) Administration, given my well-known support of the People National Congress (PNC), long before Jagdeo could’ve even hold a ministerial position or even born,” Ali stated in relation to Straughn’s claim.

“…I maintain my desire to appear before the CoI once called-upon, with all the required and legal documentation. I also maintain my non-alliance to the PPP or more so former President Jagdeo,” the letter stated.

Ali called Dalrymple’s allegation that he had experience government interference and racism under the former government because of Ali’s alleged connections “blasphemous and libelous,” and noted that he, since 1987, had been granted the legal documentation for the land in question by the government for cattle grazing.

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