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Editorial: Shanty Town Issue Not An Easy Fix

THERE will be many who will not welcome the words of Fred Smith today. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t right.

There has been an uncomfortable line of discussion since Hurricane Dorian with regard to the shanty town communities in Abaco - uncomfortable because it seems to have a level of prejudice simmering just underneath the surface.

The prohibition order to prevent construction in the shanty town areas of Abaco has been broadly welcomed - but the wording used by the government in posting the order is not the wording being used widely to discuss it.

The government quite simply stated that “the purpose of the order is to allow for recovery efforts and the removal of storm debris”.

The discussion since seems to have centred around how those buildings should never have been there in the first place and this is an opportunity to make sure they don’t spring up again.

Mr Smith - who will doubtless be criticised for his comments - merely points out a simple truth: if the residents have property rights, those rights cannot just be wiped away.

There are of course things that can - and should - be done during any reconstruction. The building code is there for a reason, and any rebuilt properties should meet it. There are discussions to make that building code tougher - and if it is tightened, then any newly built properties after those heightened regulations are introduced should meet the standards required.

But demanding that buildings meet the required legal standard is very different from demanding people do not rebuild at all if they have the right to the property.

Imagine if the government said you couldn’t rebuild your home even if you owned the land, had the right to build there and nowhere else to go. You would presumably be outraged. The residents of these areas may have a different background, but they are no different in the rights they have than any of the rest of us.

That doesn’t make the government order wrong either - as the search for bodies continues, we fear for what will be uncovered as that debris is cleared away. To rush in to begin rebuilding could hinder those efforts, and therefore a temporary order makes sense. Those who died deserve the dignity of taking the time to recover remains - and recovery teams do not need the added difficulty of working around construction that might not be handled as delicately and purposefully as the workers’ own efforts.

It is a complex issue - not least in that we want to ensure that buildings are as safe as possible to minimise the risk in future disasters, be they fire, flood or another hurricane. Safety is paramount, but safety does not need to mean that everyone has to clear out of an area if they have rights to be there. It merely means that any reconstruction has to be held to account and meet the required standards.

And if residents do move, where do they go? That question will need to be answered - and judging by the comments of the Haitian chargé d’affaires, Dorval Darlier, in today’s Tribune, there won’t be much help coming from the embassy for Haitians displaced by the storm.

His comment that “we are in a situation of crisis right now” when asked about advising people to return to Haiti sounded very much like people are on their own as far as the Haitian government is concerned.

For anyone wanting easy answers to this situation, there are none - which is why the shanty town issue has continued for as many years as it has. But let’s talk about it reasonably, and with an understanding of the law - and not hurl abuse at people who are defending the rights of others.

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