FISHERMEN who have operated from Bryan’s Bay Beach in Port Antonio for decades say they have been wrongfully evicted from lands which the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC) claims belong to the company.
The fishers are contending that they were not squatters as the land which they and their foreparents occupied and operated as a fishing beach, from as far back as anyone can recall, belongs to the community and not the railway company.
The men, whose gear sheds were demolished in July on the authority of a court order, said it is an injustice that they have been forced from the beach they have maintained over the years and which has been the only source of income for many of them.
“Now I have to walk half-mile from here to another beach where I just ‘kotch’ a few of my things, because we have nowhere to go. Everybody just scatter all over the place,” president of the fisherman’s group Ian Edwards told the Jamaica Observer North East.
“My customers used to come here every Sunday to buy fish. Now they don’t even know where to find me because I am all over the place now,” he added.
Edwards, a licensed fisherman since 1990, lives a stone’s throw from the beach. He said his foreparents operated from that very spot and were never once told that the property belonged to the railway corporation. When the bailiff showed up on July 20 to demolish the sheds was the first time they were hearing about it, he said.
They later raised their concerns with the JRC as to the ownership of the land, with the more than 30 fishermen hopeful that the demolition would not have proceeded. However, that was not to be as the sheds were torn down and the men evicted.
“Is not anywhere weh people live, is just that if a fisherman has to overnight with him equipment him would stay there,” he said of the sheds. He said the engines were usually stored on the beach, however, when persons began stealing them the fisherfolk they were forced to construct buildings to ensure their safety.
Edwards said he was informed by the National Environment and Planning Agency that the land they were occupying was reserved for local fishermen. Checks with the National Land Agency, he said, also revealed that the land does not belong to JRC.
The fishermen said they later attended a meeting where Transport and Works Minister Dr Omar Davies, who has responsibility for the JRC, promised to see if the corporation had overstepped its bounds.
In a recent statement, Davies said a meeting was held at the ministry’s offices to address matters arising from the “eviction of the fishermen and demolition of squatter settlements on JRC property”.
“Eviction notices were issued by the courts, as the JRC sought to free the lands of squatters as it prepares to divest the railway operations,” the statement read.
In responding to their concerns, Davies said “individuals will be treated fairly as the Government seeks to address their uncertainties and concerns as efforts are made to find solutions to the problem”.
But the fishermen maintain that it should not have been a problem in the first place as the gear sheds were constructed between the high water mark and the JRC property.
“Even if we are squatters, we were not on JRC land, so if they want to privatise their land, fine, but they can’t cheat us from this,” Edwards said.
Another fisherman, Leo Oakley, said the beach would have deteriorated had the fishermen and residents of the community not maintained it over the years. He also claimed that the JRC lost a chunk of its land during the construction of the main road linking St Thomas to Portland.
“Because some of that land was lost when Pihl was building the road the beach is the only valuable piece left, and that is why dem want fi remove we,” he alleged.
The fishermen said it’s not only the fisherfolk who benefit from the beach property as it is used by the entire community as a recreational area.
“Look all around you, is all hillside, and this is the only flat land where the residents can gather,” he said, adding that the community’s youth club was being operated out of a building which was constructed on top of one of the sheds.