CHAIRMAN of Environmental Solutions Limited Barry Wade says the fragmentation of governmental responsibilities among ministries is to blame for perpetuating squatting.
The phenomenon, he pointed out, falls under the jurisdiction of not just the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing, but also the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, that of water, land, environment and climate change, as well as the labour and social security ministry.
Wade, who was speaking on landlessness, squatting and environmental refugees in Jamaica at a public forum hosted by the Jamaica Institute of Environmental Professionals (JIEP) last week, said too, that the country's outdated environmental laws need to be revised to take into account the imbalance due to landlessness and squatting, which are rooted in past governmental policies and legislation.
"This will require the input of well-informed and highly skilled legal practitioners with knowledge of environmental conditions and parameters. However, such persons are few in number in Jamaica and there does not seem to be any great effort to reverse this situation," he said.
Wade called on his colleagues to initiate a multi-disciplinary approach to arriving at the most suitable and effective policies and programmes to deal with squatting across the island. He said that environmental professionals trained in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), in particular, need to increase their efforts if they are to meet the demand for useful squatting-related data in the shortest possible time.
"One aspect of information gathering and analysis that is particularly urgent — and that is precisely the role for environmental scientists — is the evaluation of the current impacts of squatting on critical ecosystems; including watersheds, forests, rivers and other surface waters, wetlands, coastal and marine environments, and inner cities," he said.
Such evaluations, Wade said, must include an assessment of likely impacts of climate change.
Outside of GIS, the scientist listed environmental law, environmental economics and natural resources valuation as areas in which his colleagues should get involved, and he urged the association to more vigorously encourage the environmental economists in the island to emphasise the wider issues of spatial planning and land use management.
Another area which Wade said was posing a challenge to solving squatting was a lack of finances to fuel the requisite interventions. As such, he called on environmental professionals to view their services in the area as a contribution to the national good, rather than a means of increasing their income.
"New thinking, new paradigms, new policies, and new actions are required to achieve sustainable human development and environmental integrity for all, especially if we are to have a reversal in what seems to be the intractable problems of landlessness, squatting and environmental refugees," he said.
Among the negative effects of squatting Wade discussed are that it engenders the development of dysfunctional communities, it damages environmental resources and it usually creates public health hazards due to inadequate water quality, poor waste disposal and a high frequency of communicable diseases. His suggestions on how to tackle it is to first, identify and analyse the local nature of the phenomenon; second, recognise that the extent of squatting is usually directly proportional to the degree of landlessness; and third, transform dysfunctional squatter communities into viable, functional and supportive spaces by putting in physical infrastructure and social amenities that foster environmental health and well-being.
Wade cited a 2008 survey by the housing ministry that showed that there were 754 squatter communities across the island, comprising between 600,000 and 900,000 people, or 33 per cent of the population. He said, however, that the figure is believed to have increased and currently represents 40 per cent of the population. Seventy-six per cent of these communities are located on government land, 38 per cent on arable land, and 10 per cent in environmentally fragile areas.