By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Tribune Chief Reporter
RESIDENTS living in structures illegally erected on government land in North Andros have been issued eviction notices, a move that could possibly displace an estimated 1,800 people.
“In all cases we are going to follow the law,” Agriculture and Marine Resources Minister Michael Pintard said yesterday. He confirmed that teams under his purview and on the advice of the Attorney General’s Office issued the notices that gave the residents 30 days to move out. Officials began posting the notices on the shanty town structures and handing them out about one week ago.
Joseph Ferguson, North Andros administrator, told The Tribune it was estimated that about 1,800 people live in two shanty towns in that portion of the island, adding it was time the “law took its course”.
He said Andros residents were concerned that if not dealt with, the situation could mirror that of Abaco, which has several unregulated communities spread across the island. Many of those communities were destroyed by Hurricane Dorian last year.
Yesterday, Mr Pintard said his ministry was keen on handling the matter carefully, lawfully and intentionally.
“We said that we were going to make a determination if on our evaluation of our lease agreements whether or not any of the government land had persons on it that should not have been there,” Mr Pintard told The Tribune.
“Once the team did an evaluation and got back to me, they indicated that there were in fact persons on government land. We then reached out to all those persons who we were under the impression they had lease arrangements and where it was determined that they were not honouring the lease or they themselves had concerns that the parcel of land that they were associated with – that others were also on that parcel of land, we immediately then moved upon the advice of the Attorney General’s Office. We moved to issue eviction notices which was within our right under the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources.”
He also said: “These notices were placed on all structures that are on government land. When I directed the land unit to travel to Andros, their remit was simply to look at the land under our care and where persons were occupying it unlawfully to follow the legal guidelines in terms of requesting that there aren’t any illegal structures and that they are removed.”
Asked whether it was found that leases for these parcels of land had been issued for farming purposes, the minister said there were several cases where people had no form of documentation at all for farming.
“In fact there are some who had never applied but they commenced with structures,” he said. “In some cases there were some who actually thought that the lease arrangement of their parents or grandparents or some other relative had been duly executed and we are satisfied in a few cases that they were not duly executed.
“So what you will find is a mixed bag of scenarios that capture different groups of people on government land, but in all cases we are going to follow the law.”
In other cases where there are Bahamians who have been using the land for farming. Mr Pintard said discussions will take place to remedy the situation.
“Naturally for those Bahamians who have been doing farming, but did not have an appropriate lease and presumed that their relatives had a lease, we will no doubt enter into discussions with them to see if there is a remedy to that situation.
“However our first course of action is to draw to their attention that any documentation that has ever been exchanged between them and my predecessors reveals that they do not have a legitimate lease,” Mr Pintard said.
Mr Ferguson, for his part, said he sympathised with those who call shanty towns in North Andros “home”, but the law should apply to all.
“We are supposed to do this without fear or favour,” he said, “I don’t know why we are skirting around this issue.
“Either we going to do it or we are not going to do it, but ultimately we should let the law take its course.
“. . .We have to act before something serious happens. We have already had the e-coli outbreak here because of unhygienic conditions, so who is to say it won’t get worse? Those who applied for work permits they should be able to build proper structures for their workers, but we just don’t want Andros to have the same kind of issue as Abaco.”
Last month, Mr Pintard said government was looking into whether the E. coli contamination of groundwater in North Andros was due to nearby unregulated communities. These investigations continue.
This comes amid an ongoing judicial review centred on shanty town demolition, that on its last hearing in the Supreme Court, stalled on arguments between Crown lawyers and attorneys representing Respect Our Homes Limited over document disclosures.
ROHL wants the court to grant a request for numerous documents to be submitted, including those that could expose sensitive Cabinet discussions.
This would involve full disclosure of notes memoranda, discussions papers, press releases, consultations and other documents that would form the basis of government’s apparent policy to eradicate shanty towns in the Bahamas.
ROHL represents 177 residents and/or occupants of shanty towns. The matter is back in court later this month.