Hope Estate farmers signal court challenge to tripling of rental fee

Attorney at law Anil Nandlall (in suit) with the aggrieved rice farmers.

Several hundred rice, cattle and cash crop farmers say that a decision by Hope Estate Coconut Industries Limited, on the East Coast of Demerara, to triple the rental fee for lands is too burdensome and some have indicated their intention to move to court if the new charge is imposed or any attempt is made to evict them.

After a “Notice to quit” was sent to more than a dozen rice farmers for non-payment of rent, attorney Anil Nandlall penned a letter to the attorney for the Ministry of Agriculture on their behalf indicating that the process for increasing their rent has not been followed.

Girjadial Changa, one of the affected rice farmers, told Stabroek News that he has 20 acres and is now being asked to pay $15,000 for each acre. He recalled that in 2015, the rental fee was $3,000 per acre. The following year it was increased to $5,000 and in 2017 the company announced a new fee of $15,000. “We can’t afford that,” he said, before adding that two protest actions last year were not fruitful.

“If it was a $2,000 more or so, we can negotiate. I don’t know why they doing this,” he added, before noting that around 300 rice, cattle and cash crop farmers work the land.

Changa, who noted that he and his fellow rice farmers are still operating on the lands, said that six acres of land were passed down to him by his father, while he acquired the remainder on his own. The father of four said that rice cultivation, which he has been doing for about 35 years, is what he depends on to take care of his family. “I am calling on them to reconsider.  Which part in the world something would raise by so much? What me gon lef with? I would have nothing to tek a drink or nothing,” he questioned.

The other farmers who have secured the services of Nandlall are Subhan Ally, Lolita Gangaram, Clara Singh, Gangaram Goberdhan, Mangaldai Jaimangal, Balram Brijmohan, Kowsilla Ramgobin, Krishnaram Goberdhan, Lajkaram Goberdhan, Chaterpaul Singh, Ameer Ally, Ramnarine Seeraj, Shakir Ally, Gowrie Goberdhan, Harry Persaud, Jairam Hemachal, Rafick Ally, Brahmadat Dookie, Mohanlall Dookie and Khemchan Sukhlall.

The farmers were each issued with a ‘Notice to quit,’ which was signed by Omadattan Chandan, the attorney for the Ministry of Agriculture. According to one such notice, which was sent to Sukhlall, notice was given to “quit and deliver possession of the premises of 16 acres of rice land at Nutenzuil… for non-payment of rent for the period January 2017 – December 2017.”

According to the notice, which is dated 16th January, 2018, Sukhlall was given one month to deliver possession on the land.

However, in a letter dated February 6th, 2018, Nandlall indicated to Chandan that the lands in question fall under the jurisdiction of the Rice Farmers (Security of Tenure) Act, which provides a process by which rent can be increased and rice lands can be repossessed. “The purpose of this Act is to provide a regime of security of tenure for tenant-rice farmers. In short, rents chargeable for rice lands cannot be increased and a tenant of rice lands cannot be removed from possession except by the procedures outlined by the Act. We are not aware that any such procedures have been initiated or undertaken,” Nandlall wrote.

Against this background, he said the letter of demand for rent and notice to quit was “premature, precipitous and contrary to the letter and spirit of the Rice Farmers (Security of Tenure) Act.” He said that he has advised Sukhlall, and the others by extension, to “ignore the letter and to remain in possession of the above-mentioned lands.”

Nandlall warned that any attempt to interfere with the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of the lands would be met with the “full force of the law.”

The attorney, in a statement to this newspaper, pointed out that the farmers have been in occupation of the lands for several years and that these lands provide the only source of livelihood for them and their families. He said that in keeping with the advice given to remain in possession of the lands, he is prepared to institute legal action if there is any interference with the farmers’ right to quiet and peaceful enjoyment of the lands.

Meanwhile cash crop farmer Shawn Wilson told Stabroek News that despite the farmers’ pleas to the management of the Hope Estate Coconut Industries Limited, “they are not bending”.

He said that he has 17 acres, which were left abandoned until two years ago because of their swampy state. He said that he managed to build up a section and began planting cash crops. The cultivation, he said, is what his family depends on for survival.

“There was a 200% jump. They wanted $15, 000 an acre. This is impossible for me. We are ordinary people trying to make a life,” he said, while noting that retrenched sugar workers may also tap into the farming industry, which could mean prices for crops will fall.

“How will we make a profit?” he questioned, while noting that even though he is not planting all the land, he will have to pay the rent for all 17 acres.

According to Wilson, the company has already built notice boards which they want to erect on the farmers’ lands. “We are not going to sit by… it (the fee) must be reduced. We have decided that we are not going to pay that amount,” he said.

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