By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE rapid construction of unregulated structures and the lay out of these homes in a new Abaco shanty town shows “there is tremendous collusion in the community by influential persons,” Works Minister Desmond Bannister said.
Noting the situation will not be an “overnight fix”, Mr Bannister pledged to Abaconians that the government will take the necessary action to deal with unregulated developments on the island.
Despite a government ban on the construction of any new buildings in the four major shanty towns on Abaco in 2019, unregulated homes continue to spring up on the island where officials estimate more than 1,000 illegal structures have been built in one particular shanty town – The Farm – since Hurricane Dorian hit.
Aerial surveillance, released by residents earlier this month, showed new construction taking place, with buildings being built more strategically and sturdier than what was seen in the irregular communities pre-Dorian.
Government officials, including Mr Bannister and North Abaco MP Darren Henfield, conducted a walkabout in some parts of the Farm Road community over the weekend.
Some officials were visibly shocked during their trek through the area after seeing a number of newly constructed and well-designed homes.
The Tribune saw several homes with rooftop solar panels while others had makeshift power generating systems scattered across the communities.
One official told The Tribune the areas the group toured was only “the tip of the iceberg”.
Asked where people may have obtained the materials to build the illegal homes, officials said they believed shanty town dwellers received building supplies from different NGOs and second homeowners on the island.
Others collected debris from storm ravaged homes.
The deputy prime minister expressed concern with the lay-out of the new shanty town, saying it shows “there is tremendous collusion in the community by influential persons”.
He said: “You can see secondly that these houses are laid out in a very professional manner. They’re not close together like they were in the Mud so there’s obviously professional assistance. You can see the small houses that NGOs provided, you’ve seen them at a number of locations.
“So those are buildings that’s being abused. You saw the power lines and you saw water lines. There are many challenges that have been created in this community…You look at some of the buildings, you see the sophistication of the buildings that’s going on. It’s highly sophisticated on the buildings, you have solar panels on the roof.
“This is not going to be an overnight fix but this is the kind of challenge that the government has to take on immediately and so I will be making a report to Cabinet on Tuesday (on) what I’ve seen and obviously, this will require a multidisciplinary and multi-agency action to get right to the bottom of what is happening.”
Asked how the breach of the order was allowed to happen right under the government’s nose, Mr Bannister replied that the blame cannot solely fall on one entity, but noted that all agencies will have to be held accountable.
He said: “Well, we have to hold every government agency accountable so immigration is going to have to respond, customs is going to have to respond because we’re going to know how these equipment would’ve gotten into the country and the police are going to be called in to do what they’re supposed to do and what they do so well and so professionally.
“We’re going to ensure that we respond to the challenges and that we deal with the problems... Those who are illegal, I am advised that boats can come in right at the back of where we are so this community can continue to expand and we have to deal with that. Secondly, for those who are here legally in the country, persons who hold their work permits have to be held accountable. There has to be prompt and swift action by the government.”
He also said: “…What I’m seeing here shows that there is tremendous collusion in the community by influential persons. I’m not overlooking that either, so persons who are responsible for this are going to have to be held to account. This is money. Y’all saw that huge generator over on the other side and that’s only two of many. There’s probably hundreds of generations in this community.”
At one point during Saturday’s walkabout, the body of a dead man was discovered lying next to a generator. Police later said this was being investigated as a sudden death and that foul play was not suspected.
Referring to the matter, Mr Bannister told reporters that the incident reflects the sort of challenges that shanty town communities can face with unregulated power.
“This morning we did not let the media come to one of the places we went because there was a generator there where somebody had been sleeping close to it and that person was deceased,” Mr Bannister said on Saturday.
“That’s why we stopped you at a certain place where we came because we wanted to have some dignity to that body so the kinds of accidents that you could have here and the kinds of challenges you can have here with unregulated power is one of the challenges.”
Although it is not clear how many residents are currently living in the Farm Road, Chairman of Treasure Cay local government Stephanie Hield estimates that between 1,000 to 2,000 illegal structures have been constructed there since Hurricane Dorian in 2019.
“When I had a drone put in here three months after the hurricane, it was like about 300 and something homes and then we had it drone again about six to eight months later, it was 800 and something homes,” she said.
“I had (another drone) I should say about probably a month ago and it was probably 1,000 homes so I don’t know it’s probably close to 2,000 homes now.”
She said the situation is particularly concerning for residents there who fear that the nearby unregulated communities could cause contamination of the area’s water table among other things.
Meanwhile Mr Henfield said the government would have to be both humane and lawful in its handling of the irregular communities.
“We’re going to take advice from lawyers to see how we move forward but in the first instance our thought is that those structures that are not being occupied, those should be removed in the first phase,” the North Abaco MP said.
“…This Farm area is a huge area where we have a water table. We’re concerned about that. We’re concerned about what goes on in irregular communities that is untoward as it relates to law and order in The Bahamas.”
Gerald François, a resident who was living in the area prior to Dorian, told reporters that the government is to blame for dragging its feet on the issue.
“The government should’ve acted sooner before all these houses got here,” he said. “About sixteen houses was in the back here before Dorian. It wasn’t all of this… I can’t count (how many homes) are now in the back. A lot of them are here (illegally) but most of them are not.”
Mr François said if the government was to break down the newly erected structures and evict shanty town dwellers, the move would not come without residents putting up a fight.
“I’m not stopping the government from collecting illegal (migrants) but if you try break a home in the back here, it’s going to be a problem because a lot of them people is Haitian Bahamians and Bahamians. I talking raw pure Bahamians,” he said.
“…The illegals ain’t gone have nothing to say but people like me who have passport and a lot of people who got passport who voted for Minnis, yeah it gone be a problem because we voted for you.”