The beginning of the end of squatting (Part 1)
Charles Jr (right), along with Member of Parliament for St Ann North Western Krystal Lee, visits a squatter settlement.

“Squatting presents a unique dilemma in Jamaica. For many it is a solution to overwhelming housing challenges and for others it is a critical problem manifesting in several social, environmental and economic issues.” Pearnel Charles Jr.

Over the next three weeks we will examine “Squatting” in Jamaica in a three-part series: How it started; How it's going; and How it should be.

How it started?

Jamaica has been haunted by the issue of squatting from post-Emancipation. Upon the abolition of slavery, no land or housing provisions were made for the slaves and thus they occupied whatever free land they could at the time.

Squatting, therefore, provided for the housing needs of those who could not afford to purchase a house, or who were unable to find alternative formal accommodation. The United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT) defines squatting as the illegal occupation of land and/or buildings, for residential, commercial, industrial and other use, without the explicit permission of the owner.

Pre- and post-Independence discord between political and economic interests, combined with official tolerance and/or open encouragement of squatting, resulted in persistent land utilisation conflicts that erupted in protests in 1994. The worst of these protests was the riot, on March 11, 1994, associated with a legally authorised eviction of squatters, from 27 hectares of captured land in Flanker, Montego Bay, St James. The rapid increase in squatting that took place in Jamaica, during the 1990s, was described as the 'rumbling social volcano' which erupted in 1994 and 1994 was later referred to as the 'Year of the Squatter.'

The conflicting positions and messages of the different political administrations on squatting during the pre- and post-Independence period, the late 1950s to 1994 changed over the years. They moved from official tolerance of the growing problem of squatting, to accommodative and proactive encouragement of squatting in many documented cases, and eventually to brutal evictions and hasty relocations.

Mention the word squatting in Jamaica today, and it is still a much heated, emotive discourse regardless of the audience. Despite the many efforts by several administration in the Government of Jamaica as well as the private sector to provide sustainable housing solutions across Jamaica, squatting has steadily increased and has created further social and environmental issues across the island. There is an amalgam of issues that contribute to squatting in Jamaica.

Jimmy Tindigarukayo (2005) states that within the last four decades, the incidence of squatting has increased in Jamaica mainly due to the following factors:

Substantial rural-urban migration

Acute housing shortage

Economic hardships

Political patronage

Availability of idle land

A collapsing agriculture plantation

In addition to the factors stated above; the lack of enforcement which results in developments without approvals and permits, the lack of forward planning and growth of the tourism and other industries without adequate housing provisions for the workers of these industries have also contributed to the continued growth of squatting.

Aside from social issues, there are also environmental concerns where squatting is concerned. Most informal settlers live in vulnerable environments, unsanitary and unsafe conditions which are often prone to natural and man-made disasters such as hurricanes, floods and fires. These unforeseen situations have often rendered people homeless.

The National Squatter Survey 2004 highlighted that 55 per cent of the squatter settlements are located on flat land which are within flood plains and along coastal areas. The National Squatting Survey commissioned by the then Ministry of Land and Environment in 2002-2003 revealed that there were approximately 635 squatter settlements islandwide, with approximately 76 per cent of these settlements on Government lands.

Today, squatting occurs in every parish of Jamaica. The 2008 survey found that Kingston and St Andrew (KSA) had the largest number of settlements, followed by St Catherine.

However, on the other hand, more than 62 per cent of all squatter settlements were located in rural parishes, as compared to 35 per cent in urban parishes.

The initiatives and programmes by the Government to address squatting began as early as the 1960s have ranged from the Slum Clearance Schemes of the 1960s; the Settlement Upgrading Initiatives of the 1970s and the 1980s; the World Bank financed Sites and Services Programme, introduced in 1976; Operation PRIDE in the 1990s; to the Relocation 2000 Programme.

The most ambitious of these initiatives has been the Programme for Resettlement and Integrated Development Enterprise (Operation PRIDE) that was inaugurated in 1994 'The Year of the Squatter'.

Operation Pride was modelled on the Settlement Upgrading Initiative of the 1970s and 1980s.

Figure 1. showing initiatives and programmes developed by the Government

Despite Emancipation and Independence, low incomes have continued to make it challenging for many Jamaicans to qualify for housing provision of any kind. Squatting is the most highly visible manifestation of the acute housing shortage, as well as the challenges related to suitable locations for housing. It is a clear indication of the need for social housing, which includes housing for the indigent as well as subsidised rent or shared equity to compensate for limited consumer affordability.

A fair question now would be, why am I adding to the mountain of articles that have already been written, what could I possibly have to say that has not already been said. Find out in part two of this series in which I will examine what the Government of Jamaica has been doing to combat squatting.

Pearnel Charles Jr is Minister of Housing, Urban Renewal, Environment and Climate Change. E-mail responses to ministeroffice@ mhurecc.gov.jm

Pearnel Charles Jr
Pearnel Charles Jr

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