By Roderick A. Simms II
An advocate for sustainable
Family Island development
Crown land can be defined as public land. It is a territorial area owned by the state (government) that citizens can access and also have the right to use. In The Bahamas, the controversies surrounding crown land can be divided into two parts: Ownership and management. This article will address these issues in an attempt to explore the political, social and legislative sides of this matter. It will also provide an insight into digital solutions and technology-driven initiatives that can help resolve some of these issues.
Crown land is managed by the Department of Land and Surveys in The Bahamas. However, successive governments have failed to address an estimated 30,000-plus applications by Bahamians requesting they be granted crown land for multiple purposes. This speaks to poor management, and a lack of attention being given to this process, which hinders Bahamians from doing business and building homes in their own country. A properly-managed system could help spur economic growth in The Bahamas, especially for those living in the Family Islands since the cost of doing business there is higher than in New Providence due to extra transportation, utilities and shipping supplies costs. In 2018, the current government announced that, once enacted, the Economic Empowerment Zones Bill would help establish an inventory of crown land throughout The Bahamas in a bid to make low-cost housing available. While this appears to be a progressive attempt to address the issue of crown land distribution and ownership, it does not take away from the fact that Bahamians have not been a priority when it comes to reform in this area.
Many Bahamians allege their crown land applications seemingly disappear once submitted to the system. Obtaining a title search is also a tedious process, and there are complaints about a lack of transparency. In fact, The Bahamas has ranked extremely low (167 out of 190 countries) on land registration in the World Bank's "ease of doing business" rankings for some years. This is one of the lowest rankings, and speaks to the need to tighten up the land registration process. With work clearly to be done, one of the solutions brought to the attention of the public and government is blockchain - a technology that can be programmed to track anything of value such as records, financial data and land titles. It is a non-destructive way to record data, and allows for transparency because changes are always recorded rather than destroyed or altered. It allows for each step of the process to be recorded so that there is no guessing on who the land belongs to, or how it was obtained. It also cuts out the need for any intermediaries, reducing costs and time. Since blockchain technology allows us to trust the data being used, it does not require someone to vet a document, which can take years in The Bahamas. Instead, it can be done the same day, and limits risk and exposure factors. Another way that blockchain can help is by allowing for this data to be shared with the public. It would still be a good idea, however, to have audited annual reports on how crown land applications/approvals and land registration are progressing.
Crown land accounts for around 70 percent of all land in The Bahamas, but the ratio of Bahamian versus foreign grants/leases is unclear. The issues surrounding ownership of crown land are quite simple. It is fair to say that Bahamians have always been second-best to their foreign counterparts in terms of applications being processed and/or approved. Alfred Sears, the former attorney general, wrote in an article: "Significant crown grants, long crown leases and government conveyances and leases by the Hotel Corporation and the treasurer were made to Baha Mar; Baker's Bay in Abaco; MSC in Ocean Cay; Resorts World/Bimini Bay; Royal Caribbean's seabed lease at Coco Cay; Sandals Royal Bahamian in Nassau; Sandals Emerald Bay in Exuma; Breezes at Cable Beach; and numerous islands and cays in the Exumas and Abacos."
In 2018, Oban Energies, a company that proposed to build a $5.5bn oil refinery and storage facility in east Grand Bahama, was expected to lease 690 acres of crown land. Yet there are thousands of applications from Bahamians that have yet to be processed. This is when it becomes obvious that Bahamians are not the priority. While foreign direct investment is important to economic growth, allowing Bahamians to act as entrepreneurs, home owners and business owners is equally important. Earlier this year, the prime minister announced that Family Islanders who have been leasing crown land from the government would be given title to the properties they are leasing. This would include those who were impacted by the failed launch of the Bahamas Agricultural Research and Training Development (BARTAD) project. The failure of this project led to leaving families living on large plots of land that they did not own. It is important that governments assess these sort of investments/projects especially when it comes to leasing crown land to avoid instances such as this.
Quieting Titles Act: Abolish or stay?
A quiet title establishes who owns a property. Therefore, the Quieting Titles Act outlines the criteria determining how these decisions are made. The court provides a judgment on who owns the property, which is the final decision. A quiet title "quiets" any questions or doubts surrounding who is the true owner of the property. The need to bring matters of ownership to the court arises when there is a dispute over ownership, or when there is no probate or deed to ensure the property is owned by the person claiming to own the land. In The Bahamas, there are many instances where persons claiming generational property have lost their rights because there were no steps taken to transfer title. The Privy Council, the highest court in the Bahamian judicial system, has reiterated concerns about the Quieting Titles Act for quite some time. In October 2018, the Privy Council's ruled on a land squabble involving Eleuthera Properties Ltd and a group who claims ownership based on their lineage to the slaves. "All that can be said is that, however successful the machinery of the Act has been, and may yet be, in quieting title to other parts of The Bahamas, it has not proved to be an effective vehicle for that purpose in relation to the property (in question)," the Privy Council's ruling said.
This case gives an insight into how damaging the Quieting Titles Act can be, especially in those instances where families who are not able to fight against large corporations who seek to take over a piece of land. The Act does not favor the interest of the Bahamian people. Centreville MP, Reece Chipman, said he intends to call for a select committee to investigate all matters relating to the Quieting Titles Act since 1959. Its goal would be to assess if the Act should be abolished or amended to become more beneficial for Bahamians.
In closing, there is a disparity in the granting and leasing of crown land to Bahamians when compared to that for foreigners. It raises this question: Why have past governments been so opposed to getting this process fixed? Is it a matter of technicalities, or is it because they simply do not want the average Bahamian to be in possession of this land? Bahamians faced with the high cost of living often appear to be excluded. When the average household income for a Bahamian is $25,000 to $30,000, it becomes difficult to rent or take out a mortgage - especially on the Family Islands. Mega projects that are developed on crown land can cause a hike in real estate prices in surrounding areas, making it more difficult for Bahamians to open businesses or buy homes. In addition, crown land that was awarded to developers such as the I-Group in Mayaguana and Ginn in Grand Bahama should be returned to the Crown Land repository because of their failure to make good on their investment agreements. There are similar examples all over The Bahamas, and there needs to be a reversal of this failed approach to foreign direct investment (FDI). We have to start leasing land rather than unconditionally giving it away, especially when investors have not complied with their Heads of Agreement. Bahamians and foreign direct investors should not be allowed to retain crown land when contractual agreements have not been met. There is a strong case for all these issues to be resolved sooner rather than later.