Moonilal said the Government will push ahead with its housing programme in six areas which were ear-marked for construction, including areas of the community of D’Abadie where farmers this week staged protests over the clearing of land with crops at Pineapple Smith Lands by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC). Land was also cleared at Egypt Trace, Endeavour, Chaguanas.
“We had been aware for some time now since entering office that there are six areas in Trinidad that have been earmarked for housing,” Moonilal said at a post-Cabinet press briefing at the Office of the Prime Minister, St Clair. “In those areas we have had persons on those lands. In some cases, not all, they have been planting crops. It was the intention of the Ministry of Housing and the HDC to proceed with our construction cycle.”
Asked specifically if housing construction would proceed on D’Abadie lands, Moonilal said, “We have identified six areas for 2011 to begin construction. They include Egypt and Pineapple Gardens.”
Newsday understands that at a private meeting with 22 farming representatives tied to the issue, held after the briefing, Moonilal urged farmers to relocate. The farmers did not accede to this entreaty, triggering a second round of private talks to begin next Thursday.
However while the State remained intent on having farmers relocate, it yesterday agreed to pay them compensation for crops lost. The Food Production Ministry and the Housing Development Corporation will share the costs which are to be assessed by the ministry. At the St Clair press briefing Moonilal was at pains to emphasise that the issue was one of balancing two national needs: affordable housing and agriculture.
“The Government has moved with a very aggressive policy agenda in terms of agriculture. We have also moved with a policy agenda on housing. Both policy areas are critical to us. In this case it is not one or the other. In this case it was our intention to (revamp) the construction cycle and give life to the construction industry, economic growth and job creation.”
The Housing Minister, who spoke to reporters at the briefing hours after his return from a brief vacation in London, criticised the bulldozing of crops on Monday.
“The process was regrettable...It was a distressful sight for many of us. It is not something we would like to see and I am confident that we will not see that again. I am confident that we can engage the farmers in the future in the event that we have some challenges,” he said. He noted that he was abroad when the incidents took place.
“I was abroad. I do not want to speculate that it may have been different. Maybe it would have been. Maybe it would not have been. I was not in daily contact with Trinidad. I also learnt about this through the media.”
Moonilal noted that the farmers in question had been given advanced notice.
“The identification of those lands for housing purposes was done three or four years ago. And they have been served with their notice of eviction and been in touch. I think they had full knowledge that the area was ear-marked for housing. They have been informed in writing and orally concerning these matters and the identification of the area. The MP for the area (Anil Roberts) had also been in touch with residents.”
“I took the opportunity, in early March, to meet with farmers representatives at my ministry to get an assessment of what is the situation. Since then, we have engaged the farmers representatives. The Ministry of Food Production, through the Commissioner of State Lands, has been engaged and notices have been served and so on. That was ongoing,” Moonilal said.
“The actions on Easter Monday are regrettable in the circumstances. But I want to indicate that it is not a matter of housing versus agriculture. In fact, both are critical policy areas,” Moonilal added. He acknowledged the importance of the production of agricultural produce.
“We acknowledge that persons who have been on land and producing they have served the country through the production of food.”
Moonilal noted the demand for housing and that 48 percent of land in the country is already designed as forested area. There must be a balance, he said, in how the remaining 52 percent is split up. “But we must be sure that we balance it so that we can prepare and construct housing units for citizens throughout Trinidad and Tobago. In an ideal world we would wish that we can get just one area that is good for housing and just build all the houses in that area. But clearly, we cannot do that,” he said.
After the end of yesterday’s meeting with farmers, held at the offices of the Food Production Ministry, St Clair, Moonilal gave a status of talks. He indicated that the Ministry of Food Production would conduct the assessment and the payment would be done by the Ministry of Housing and the Environment.
During the meeting, they also discussed the use of the land to which the farmers presented opposing suggestions.
“We discussed the issue of the land, we put our position on the table in terms of the housing agenda, they gave alternative offers. They placed suggestions on the issue, we could not agree today because it requires some more work by the Ministry of Housing so we decided to meet next week Thursday,” he said.
In the meeting which also included Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath they decided to establish an advisory joint council.
“It will consist of farmers and the Ministry of Food Production and the Ministry of Housing to advise and to review plans for agriculture and housing. We are committed to the agricultural and housing sector,” he said.
Moonilal also granted the farmers request to remove the police and private security that occupied the lands.
“I’ve heard from the farmers some dramatic stories about the police and private security and intimidation and we have indicated that by this evening (yesterday) we will instruct the removal. They also agreed they will not return to the land to plant because we are still in discussion,” he said.
The farmers in their protest action in the last few days requested Moonilal to apologise for the action taken but he pointed out the ministry has always expressed regret.
“Maybe if I was around it may not have happened that way but the outcome would have been the same, they all received eviction notices,” he said.
Meanwhile the farmers who expressed disappointment on the outcome of the meeting said they will go ahead with their planned action in Woodford Square in Port-of-Spain today and they requested an immediate meeting with Prime Minister Kamla-Persad Bissessar upon her return from Brazil
“We want her to make the decision in this, she was the one who said on the platform that would stay in agriculture,” Shiraz Khan, president of the Goat and Sheep Farmers Association said.