A view of an illegal building on the real estate property earmarked for an US$8-billion investment in Westmoreland
Investors blame GOJ for failing to relocate squatters occupying prime real estate

An American investment firm called OPES, LLC is accusing the Government of remaining silent on an issue which could result in the country losing an US$8-billion investment.

The accusation follows development delays faced by OPES, LLC regarding plans to build two five-star resorts worth at least US$5 billion to US$8 billion in Little Bay and Brighton, Westmoreland, Jamaica.

The company said the development is being met with unexplainable silence by the Government of Jamaica which made a promise to resettle many illegal squatters just before the start of a court ordered eviction in June 2018.

“The issue here is not the price of the land. The issue is the removal of the squatters so that the land can be developed. It's been marketed to be developed, and there is interest in the land [by not just persons wishing to develop it] to Caribbean five-star standard but also by ultra-luxury developers of some of the most luxurious properties in the United States. The type of project we envision here is approximately US$8 billion. The plan is to create these ultra-luxurious properties that will further attract the rich and famous to the area which has the most beautiful sunsets in the world. As mentioned before, this development will, without a doubt, significantly contribute to the Jamaican economy,” OPES, LLC stated in a release.

The company further argued that “Such developments will encourage other investors to pour into Jamaica's tourism industry, thus providing countless job opportunities for the people of Jamaica; however, the Government does not seem to see it this way.”

Despite the 2011 court decision granting writs of possession and the eviction of at least 37 squatters, the legal owner along with prospective investors are still struggling to have the squatters removed from the 867-acre property.

The company highlighted that the illegal squatters are not only settled in board and zinc structures.

“Among them are foreign affluent opportunists, who have occupied the property since the owner purchased it from the former landowner, offering various tourism products including, guest houses, villas, bars/restaurants, and multimillion-dollar complexes,” OPES, LLC outlined.

According to the land owner's legal representative – attorney Alimi Banjoko – and OPES, LLC the illegal occupation has prevented both access and development.

in June 2018, then Minister of Economic Growth and Job Creation, (MEJIC) Karl Samuda intervened indicating that the squatters would be resettled. Since then, several meetings have been held and timetables scheduled; the last meeting was held in April 2021 with then Minister of Housing, Urban Renewal, Environment, and Climate Change Pearnel Charles Jr, who promised a swift and decisive response and follow up.

However, both attorney Alimi Banjoko and OPES, LLC claim there has been no update on the matter since the April 2021 meeting with Minister Charles Jr, leaving them clueless as to what the Government's next move will be regarding the removal of the squatters and moving forward with the development plans.

Both attorney Banjoko and OPES, LLC strongly expressed that the Government must make every effort to prevent the squatter issue from becoming a political football kicked around by promises that are likely to embolden the squatters. “Put another way, the Government ought to become more active in the process in light of the gigantic economic gains that are likely to flow from the proposed tourism projects,” OPES, LLC noted.

Banjoko said the Ministry of Economic Growth & Job Creation has already conducted most, if not all, of the necessary site, geological, and socio-economic surveys; and has since then expressed interest in acquiring 50 of the 867 acres. However, the size was reduced to 20 acres towards the eastern portion of the property. Based on the discussions, it is believed that the Government owned lands that adjoin the property would be used in part to settle the squatters.

Citing the general principle of the rule of law and the direct provision of the Jamaican Constitution to uphold and protect the rights of private ownership of land, both attorney Banjoko and OPES, LLC believes that the Government must be part of the solution whether by fast-forwarding the resettlement initiative or readily assist the owner to reclaim the property from the squatters.

BY ANDREW LAIDLEY Senior business reporter laidleya@jamaicaobserver.com

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