THERE was quite a startling admission from Environment Minister Vaughn Miller yesterday.
Mr Miller, who is part of the body of lawmakers in our country, said he had considered breaking the law himself because of frustration with bureaucracy.
He was addressing deforestation activities that have been taking place in southern New Providence, in the Carmichael area.
He said those cutting down the trees have been told to “cease and desist” but that he understands the factors driving them to such action.
He said: “I understand, I saw this day coming. I’ve heard conversations in the past, I’ve been a part of conversations, persons were upset, persons who were very concerned because the perception was that Haitians or Haitian Bahamians or persons of Haitian descent were allowed to live on Crown land without permission. So, if they’re allowed to do it in my country then as a Bahamian I must be able to do the same thing. I’ve entertained the thoughts of acting in a similar manner. I decided not to, it was not in the best interest of the country. The best way to do it was abide by the process.”
There is a lot to unpack from that statement. It is hard to know where to begin, but let us start with the casual assertion without proof that it is Haitians or those of Haitian descent to blame. After all, the last time a survey of shanty towns was carried out in Abaco, the majority of residents, 80 percent, had legal status to reside in the country – be it citizenship, spousal permits or work permits. About 20 percent were undocumented.
People can often find it easy to point the finger of blame at the Haitian community – but we should not let such accusations pass without evidence.
More than that, saying that you see other people break the law so you might as well do it too is the kind of behaviour one should grow out of as a child, when your mother says if that person jumps off a bridge, would you do it too? Even more startling is that several of the applications for land that he made was from the church.
We can be thankful that Mr Miller resisted temptation, but to say that he had considered breaking the law is remarkable to say the least.
And then – once we get past the astonishing admission of a lawmaker considering breaking the law – we come to the issue itself.
The way we handle applications for Crown land are a mess. Mr Miller points out that a number of the instances of people seemingly building on land is where Bahamians have a right to the land and lease it out. Meanwhile, the land manager at the Department of Lands and Surveys says that there is a backlog of applications for Crown Land in the thousands.
The government is said to be committed to reforming the Crown land system – and it is not before time for such reform to take place.
What is needed of course are the same things needed in so many areas of government – transparency about the process to ensure land is not being handed out for political favours, adequate resources and staffing to ensure applications get dealt with in a timely manner, and frankly an overhaul of antiquated systems to bring them into some semblance of the modern era.
As Alfred Sears, now Works Minister, said in 2018, there is “no accountability for how this Crown land is used and is disposed of by the cabinet or the parliament”.
He was right then, and the system is still a mess now.
An overhaul will not be easy. There are many people with claims that will need to be untangled to see exactly what has been awarded previously.
But just because something is complicated does not mean breaking the law is justified.
Mr Miller resisted temptation, but others have not. And those who have broken the law should be held to account, no matter their nationality, no matter their political connections.
The deforestation at Carmichael is damaging national assets, and cease and desist is not enough – there should be court action if it continues.
Reform is needed, but until it is delivered, and it is up to this government now to deliver on promises, then this kind of unlawful behaviour needs to be dealt with.
Crime is crime, and we should not give those who break the law any comfort in thinking their actions are justified.