By Raffique Shah
July 19, 2019
I listened to Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi a few nights ago as he detailed new legislation and associated measures the Government has put in place regarding land ownership and transactions. If I got it right, he said they have revolutionised the registration of deeds such that detailed information contained in those all-important proof of ownership documents will make fraudulent transfers difficult if not impossible.
He said the modernisation of the database on land ownership will literally cover every property in the country. It will plug a money-laundering hole through which crooks who amass wealth would “hide” their ill-gotten gains in properties they purchase, or which they have “front men” buy on their behalf.
His explanations and assurances seemed to me to be reasonable except for what I think is a gaping gap: he said nothing about the multi-billion-dollar racket involving State lands, under which heading I include huge landholdings that fall under Caroni Ltd, Petrotrin and the Chaguaramas Development Authority, which were or are State-owned enterprises.
Using myself as an example, when I look to the east of my humble abode, in the foreground I see one-acre-plus of well-maintained land, expensively fenced and fully serviced with water and electricity. Such sight should make anyone happy. The land could have been overgrown with bushes and a haven for pests and vermin.
But there is a problem. You see, that land belongs to the State, to Caroni Ltd, to be more accurate, and the occupier (who lives nearby) is not even a lawful tenant of the plot, far less owner. The original tenant “sold” the land for a lump-sum, and the new “owner” exercises rights as if he owns it.
It does not matter to me what he does or does not do with the property. I simply think that he ought to be made to pay for every square foot at market price (residential, not agricultural) so that the State, which is squeezing poor and middle-class people every which way, would collect some money to render a de facto occupation de jure, and apply all the taxes due therefrom.
I need add that huge acreages of State-owned lands (originally Forres Park Estate Ltd) to my east, north and west, and smaller parcels to the south, fall in a similar category. Some are occupied by wealthy business owners,, others by poor squatters. I imagine their legal status, or non-status, is similar to my neighbour’s.
Now, I am writing here about lands and properties within a one-mile radius of where I live (to the west, the sea is approximately 500 metres away). Similar situations apply to Caroni Ltd lands, 70,000 acres as I recall it, that extend from Penal in the south to Orange Grove in the north. In fact, there is ample evidence that some wealthy contractors have occupied prime ex-Caroni installations and properties, terms and conditions, if any, unknown to the public who are ultimately the owners.
Government is hardly in a position to recover any of the illegally-occupied lands, especially those that have structures ranging from solid concrete houses to large commercial buildings and in few instances, plants and machinery for industrial purposes. It makes sense, therefore, to sell them, with first options going to the occupiers. If they do not have the means to purchase the properties, then offer them to the public.
I should add that while Caroni’s lands may be classified as agricultural holdings, almost all of them are prime residential or commercial lands. I am told that, depending on location, such lands can fetch between $1 million per acre ($25 per square foot) to $5 million. There may well be 10,000 acres that are irrecoverable, for which rental, if the occupiers pay (they hardly bother), is $12 per residential lot per annum, and less than $100 per acre.
Selling off 10,000 acres can fetch between $10 billion and $50 billion. I suggest that since the office of the Commissioner of State Lands seems to be incapable of meeting its mandate, the divestment process be contracted to private companies that have good track records in conducting such exercises expeditiously.
Readers need note that the lands I am referring to are former Caroni fields that are almost completely out of the residual company or the State’s control. No official has visited these lands in decades, and the occupiers are doing their own thing, in a manner of speaking. I shan’t be surprised to learn that some officials are being bribed to turn a blind eye to this theft of State lands. Also, it won’t surprise me that the AG’s brand new database does not contain any of these lands, including entire quarries that have long been stripped of sand and gravel that enriched a few big-shot bandits and robbed the citizenry of billions of dollars.
I can say nothing about the approximately 15,000 acres of forests and prime agricultural and sea-front lands that fall under the control of the CDA, except that on the eve of demitting office in 2015, the People’s Partnership administration approved some suspiciously-priced leases to select business elites. And with the one-time oil giant Petrotrin in limbo, anything could happen to the 25,000-plus acres that is legally under its control.
Another multi-billion-dollar land State-lands scandal relates to the two-acre agricultural plots that have been leased to former Caroni employees as part of their termination packages. These lands were intended to stimulate the cultivation of diversified crops that those who were so inclined might have an interest in. Instead, almost to a man, they saw it as real estate they could easily convert into cash since hundreds of cash-rich business operators and speculators were waiting like vultures to “buy” the leases.
How Government left a loophole that facilitated that land banditry, defies explanation. There ought to have been some proviso that if the plots were not cultivated within a specific time, the lands would revert to the State. Apparently not. So while the AG focuses on money launderers, land bandits are running free, making off with billions of dollars worth of public property. What a thing.