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A piece of land for every Belizean!

LettersA piece of land for every Belizean!

Dear Editor,

“Every Belizean should have access to a piece of land. With land we immediately create opportunities for upliftment and personal growth.”

–  People United Party’s “Belizean Bill of Rights,” 1 June 2017.

Darrell Bradley’s term as Mayor of Belize City ends on March 7th this year and his coup de grace was to “gift” 195 employees of the Belize City Council, each a parcel of land. In aggregate, we are told, the land totals 57 acres and the entire project took about two and a half years to come to fruition. I am genuinely happy for the recipients of the lands, many of whom are first-time land owners. However, I am disgusted at the notion that a politician must grant us our own land. Mayor Bradley’s gesture, apart from floating his own political boat, has served only to reinforce the existing system of partisan political distribution of public resources.

I don’t believe I have ever heard the UDP articulate any land policy per se. However, if the practical realities regarding land distribution under the UDP are any indication of their unwritten policy, then one can reasonably deduce that public lands are to be granted in large quantities to cronies and in small quantities to the average Belizean. Politically-connected UDPs have gotten huge tracts of land, and leading that gluttony has been the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Lands. Let me hasten to say, if it is we wish to be fair, that same thing has happened under previous administrations. It is undeniable that our lands, public lands, have been used time and time again as a “come up” by political hangers-on even as the average Belizean must endure the humiliation and frustration of dealing with the “hotbed of corruption” that is the Lands Department.

The PUP under Johnny Briceno has embedded access to land in what the PUP calls a Belizean Bill of Rights. The first of five “Bill of Rights” states that “every Belizean should have access to a piece of land.”  “With land we immediately create opportunities for upliftment and personal growth.” The thinking is sound, but as always with public policy, the difficulty lies in its execution. So we will have to wait and see what Johnny Briceno’s PUP will do in relation to the distribution of land when next it comes to office.

Whilst the UDP continues with its selective and political distribution of public lands and the PUP continues the promise of things to come, the fact remains that too many Belizeans are landless even as they see foreigners come into possession of huge tracts of Belizean land.

I happen to support the PUP’s view that “with land we immediately create opportunities for upliftment and personal growth,” and in that vein I would argue that Belize is in desperate need of comprehensive land reform. Land reform is risky because it is at once, complex, politically hazardous and socially explosive. But it is an issue that we must address if we are to keep narrow, the gap between the rich and the poor.

You will recall that it was land reform that triggered the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and it was land reform that was the silent but underlying cause of the so-called “football war” between Honduras and El Salvador.

In order to improve land ownership for the average born Belizean, I suggest that we design a non-partisan, non-political land distribution system that requires only three things. Firstly, that the person must be a born Belizean; secondly, the person must be at least 18 years old and thirdly, the person must have done at least two years of approved community service (832 hours: 8 hours/week for two years). Public officers with at least 5 years of service would be exempt from the latter requirement.

It is my view that public lands should be given only to born Belizeans and there should be strict controls on how lands so granted are disposed of. In any event, if someone is granted a piece of public land and that person disposes of it, then that person cannot qualify for any more public land. Prospective naturalized Belizeans and economic citizens would not qualify to receive public lands under the proposed scheme and if they wish to own land then they must buy from the private real estate market.

I envision a system that is devoid of political control and influence and which would work as follows. A Belizean upon reaching the age of 18 simply logs on to a National Land Distribution System, and enters his/her social security number. The System would query SSB’s database so as to ensure that the number is valid; if it is, the System would next query vital statistics’ database to ensure that the person is a born Belizean and that the person is alive. Once the applicant clears this stage the System would allow the applicant to choose the district, city/town or village where he/she has an interest in owing land. A map of all available land in the area of interest will pop up and once a suitable piece of land is found, the applicant selects it and is instantly given an assessed purchase price, which must be paid at a local bank. The receipt number would have to be inputted in the system thereafter, thus completing the transaction. The only involvement of the Ministry of Lands then would be to prepare the land documents and to send them to applicants via the mail.

There are of course several challenges that would have to be overcome, principal amongst these are (1) the integrity of the system and how we avoid unwanted intrusions, (2) getting the number of lots surveyed (an immediate 78,939 lots are needed to satisfy those Belizeans currently over 18 who do not own land) and (3) finding the public resources to put in place the necessary infrastructure to make the lands habitable (roads, power, water, etc.). These challenges are not insurmountable if we build the national collective will.

The positive outcomes of such an undertaking would not merely be land ownership but in a larger sense it would lead to greater social equity. It would also stimulate the economy with the creation of jobs in the construction, land surveying, real estate, IT and IT related sectors (such as land application services). Perhaps the greatest positive outcome is the de-politicization of land distribution and the refocusing of the Lands Department, thus reducing corruption.

Given our current population and a growth rate of ~2.65%, it is my estimation that it would take us 97 years to exhaust all the lands assigned for residential lots. Belize has a total of 5,674,880 acres of land (8,867 square miles) and if one deducts from that 33% for areas already under protection, 20% for areas that are uninhabitable (mountains, swamps, etc.) and the 25% or so that are already in private hands, one would be left with 22% of Belize or 1,248,473.6 acres.

If we were to assign 40% of the 1,248,473.6 acres for residential purposes, that would mean that we would have 499,389.4 acres available for distribution to first time residential land owners. This translates into 1,997,558 plots of land (¼ acre each), almost 2 million house lots from just 8.8% of all of Belize’s land.

Using the abovementioned National Lands Distribution System, GOB could easily allocate ¼ acre size residential lots to each Belizean upon reaching the age of 18 without the need for the corruption-prone practice of having to ask a politician for a piece of your own land.

I have already received a parcel of land (house lot) from GOB when I was in the BDF so I would not be a beneficiary of the system that I am proposing, so this ain’t about me. As my brother Neri Briceño would say, it’s all about the people!

Major Lloyd Jones

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