Land issues at Nos 40, 42 Villages, West Coast Berbice

Dear Editor,

The villagers of Plan Ayr No 40 and Seafield, No 42 on the West Coast of Berbice, have been embroiled in physical and legal conflicts since November, 2014 when the MMA/ADA seized lands belonging to and occupied by our respective registered co-op societies and gave them to other villagers in the form of fifty year leases without any reference to the management committee of these co-op societies. In addition, the laws of Guyana Chapter 88:01 of our Constitution that deal with co-op societies have been completely ignored and our constitutional rights have been violated. We have never been given a hearing as regards our lands; no notice was given to us; neither were we compensated for the lands seized from us, given that we have been in continuous occupation of these lands in excess of thirty years. We were deceived into believing that payment of our outstanding debts as advertised in the newspapers (SN, March 5, 2014) would have prevented any repossession of our lands, but the then chairman of MMA, Mr Gajraj, communicated to us later that whether we paid or not the lands would be repossessed; that he was not dealing with co-ops but with state lands, and that what he was doing could not be changed by any court in Guyana.

At the time of the seizing of our lands, members of the No 40 Co-op Society had one combine harvester and five tractors, and were more than capable of effectively cultivating our lands. Further, we had paid up approximately eighty per cent of our debts until September17, 2014.

The casualties in this horribly unjust act included a mother of six children, with five at school between nursery and secondary, and one just starting teachers’ training college. She had an allotment of twenty-four acres in the co-op, and the MMA took away twelve acres of her allotment. She pleaded with the General Manager of MMA, the Chairman of MMA and even with President Ramotar himself not to take away any of her land, because that was all she was depending on, since her husband was working in the interior and was not doing well, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. This mother still has five children at school. Some in the co-op had all their possessions taken away, while others had their holdings drastically reduced.

On the other hand a family that already had over one hundred acres of state lands was given a further fifteen acres from a co-op member who had twenty-five acres or sixty per cent of that member’s holding. It now appears that political forces are at work and strenuous efforts are being made to legitimize this monumental injustice.

With regard to the Farmers Co-op Society Ltd, we were given lease No A10199 for twenty-five years in January 17, 1972 under the hand of then President Arthur Chung. The lease at the time comprised 304.43 acres of land. However on account of drainage and irrigation works by the MMA/ADA which came into existence in 1977, the rice cultivatable land was reduced to 247 acres. The co-op worked for several years under the management of one William Hamilton and the guidance of then Regional Co-op Development Officer Ms Burke. Many villagers gained employment from the co-op.

However, the co-op went through many challenges over the years, including perennial flooding. At one time the Regional Democratic Council (RDC) took control of the co-op lands for a number of years, and when things did not work out well for them they abandoned the lands for a few years.

During 1987, Mr Ryan Hamilton, myself and others started making efforts to resuscitate the co-op society. We were guided by then Regional Co-op Development Officer, one Mr Reid. After negotiations with the Regional Democratic Council, especially Mr Alfred and officials of MMA, especially Mr Shabir Ally, the lands were given back to the co-op society and we started receiving billing with effect from January 1, 1988. It should be mentioned that when we took possession of the lands, the entire land mass was covered with thick vegetation including what we call beezee.

From January, 1988 to around March 2014, a period of twenty-six years, MMA billed us or otherwise demanded drainage and irrigation charges from us. We paid land rent until April 22, 1994 (receipt no 69384) and drainage and irrigation charges until September 17, 2014 (receipt no 13993).

During these years we suffered tremendously from persistent flooding. This flooding is due in large measure to the fact that lands south of the main irrigation canal where the co-op lands are located, drain to the Abary River. Whenever there is heavy rainfall the river is flooded and pushes the water back onto the lands. In view of this, and after many years the MMA dug a canal parallel to the river in order to relieve the flooding. And even this did not help very much because it was never completed. Only ten per cent of the 247 acres of land was planted for the autumn crop 2017 due to flooding.

In all our losses we were never compensated by the MMA. Instead we were given a waiver of D&I charges. At other times we would receive flood relief in the form of seed paddy or fertilizers. Since much of the time we were losing crops and had difficulty in paying our D&I charges, we resorted to taking out contracts with MMA to clean D&I canals in order to  upkeep our lands. We often maintained the D&I and access dams within our boundary at our own cost when MMA failed to do so.

In the meantime, those of my fellow villagers who are now claiming to be rice farmers, were stuck in their professions and other forms of occupation for which I applaud them. They are receiving their well-deserved pensions. We the co-op members were upkeeping those lands all these years. Can’t we too receive what rightly belongs to us? They met clean well-cultivated lands, while we met heavy vegetation when we took over. In 26 years we would have paid (directly or indirectly) in excess of $16 million in land rent and D&I charges at the average rate of $2,500 per acre per year. The cost for developmental works we would have done over these years is not included here.

Moreover, with the enormous hunger for lands in the MMA area, there would have been no lands to give to any villager had we, the co-op people, not been there occupying and maintaining those lands.

With the advent of the new administration in May of 2015, and with the full knowledge of this monstrous injustice and clear unconstitutional imposition on our small community, plus the contradiction of treating with similar situations in different communities (re: Cotton Tree Village, Rampur and Shieldstown Villages (Guyana Chronicle November 4, 2014);  land titling:  correcting historical problems (Ralph Ramkarran); current president, Mr David Granger through the MMA and the Attorney General chambers embarked on correcting this travesty by  revoking those leases issued in 2014.

A plethora of legal challenges and counter challenges ensued, inclusive of injunctions and counter injunctions; claims of contempt and counter claims; police interventions based on claims of threats and counter claims, in addition to actual physical encounters amongst villagers.

Ultimately, after a constitutional motion brought  by a few villagers against the MMA and Attorney General on April 26, 2017 before Chief Justice Roxanne George, a decision was handed down on 8th August, 2017. Since then, we are awaiting Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards to hand down her ruling on a similar constitutional motion with regard to lands at Seafield.

Yours faithfully,
Patrick Hamilton

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