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Land speculation and public needs

EditorialLand speculation and public needs

There was some friction in Indian Creek at the inauguration earlier this month of a new solar system because the infrastructure hadn’t reached all the villagers, some of whom wanted the inauguration to be held back until all villagers had been connected to the grid. That disagreement somewhat drowned out voices in the village that felt that GoB should have bought the land it utilized for the project that will serve the entire community.

Since the ruling in the court that established communal ownership of land in Mayan villages in Toledo, GoB has had to get its business done within the not fully finalized FPIC (Free Prior Informed Consent) protocol, which calls for dialogue between GoB and the communities on any proposed projects or land transactions that fall within village boundaries, which also have not yet been finalized in many villages. It has been a tedious process at times, and contentious, but Belizeans expect that when all the important signatures are affixed to the agreement and the boundaries are definite, it will all be good for Belize.

There have been some border disagreements between some Maya and Non-Maya villages, and these have proved difficult to resolve. But recently the GoB announced that several villages had come to an agreement with a company in the oil exploration business, a not so small victory for all involved.

Not everyone is pleased with those villagers in Indian Creek who wanted government to pay for land it is utilizing, investing in, for a public purpose, in this case to provide electricity so that students can use computers to research and prepare their work, as students in other parts of the country are doing, and so that more costly to run environment-polluting, gas-powered machines can be replaced with electric motors, to grind the corn, mill the rice, and do other work. They argue that instead of contemplating charging the government for “progress”, villagers should have been scrambling to find the best plot for the utility.

GoB “brushed off” the request, but for anyone who thought that the moment the GoB was asked to entertain such a demand it should have said an emphatic ‘No, give us the land or we take back our project and leave you to handle your own candle’, the argument in Indian Creek is not as preposterous as it seems, if we go by the modus operandi in the rest of the country. If GoB wants to invest in a project in any village, in any area that doesn’t fall under communal ownership, it must contend with the interests of individual private owners of the land.

There aren’t many parcels of national land available for the GoB to carry out projects for the public good. Very often, if the government wants to construct roads, bridges, sports fields, clinics, schools, and other public projects, it has to approach private landowners with its hands in its pockets. All over Belize, land that our government sold for the price of a “location ticket” some 10, 20, 50 years ago, it has to reach deep into the national treasury to buy back when it needs the land for an important public use.

Capitalism, ownership of property, is the acknowledged best system to stimulate productivity, and progressive governments will steer land into the hands of citizens who it believes are best able to make it productive. While guiding the tools of production into the hands of those who are equipped and ready to produce, government must also guide the system so that there are resources for up and coming entrepreneurs to work with. The giant fault of the capitalist system is that a single entity can get too big and gobble up everyone else.

When wealth is generated from the land, the “owner” gets their share, and the people get their share in the form of jobs, taxes, food, raw goods which they can process into other products, and so forth. The sale of land is an important cog in the capitalist system. Whenever land is sold, income is generated, through the sale, the taxes, and the new ideas that are given a chance to flourish and further grow the economy.

Governments try to ensure that land is put to its best use. The vacant house lot is a cost to the nation when it sits in an area where water, electricity, telephone and other utilities are provided. When these utilities are utilized to near full capacity, costs go down for consumers, and profits go up for providers. Keeping prime agricultural land idle is probably as sacrilegious as razing or setting fire to sensitive areas.

In the capitalist system, land sometimes ends up in the hands of speculators. Their enterprise isn’t the most productive, but it is not without virtue. If the tax system is progressive, government can earn considerable sums from land that is idle. Sometimes, circumstances force individuals to sell, maybe to pay off debts, maybe because they have an idea and need funds to invest, and the rich land buyer provides an important function.

Land speculation is a burden to the economy when wealthy individuals buy up huge tracts in areas that are rapidly growing, and keep it in an idle state while they wait for land prices to go up. In countries where there is little transparency in government, rich land speculators get special deals; sometimes they get information before anyone else does about where the GoB will put a bridge or road, or where GoB is planning to give the green light to a massive private project. Just a couple years ago, GoB facilitated the private purchase of hundreds of acres of mangroves in an area on the coast that is the proposed location of a cruise port project that was outlined in a proposal which was subsequently presented to government.

Progress is stymied when government of and by the people has in mind important projects for the people, and the cost of the land it needs to acquire is exorbitant. It is a problem the present government struggles with. The last government saw how crippling the land situation had become, and in its 2020 manifesto it promised to identify national lands and acquire, where possible, large unused tracts “close to cities, towns and villages” for the purpose of subdividing these lands to provide house lots and farm plots for Belizeans. The last government also promised that if it was returned to power it would address a valuation system that gave large sums to landowners when government needed “to correct a mistake or acquire land in the public interest.”

The rights of individuals must be respected, must not be trampled upon, but the interests of the nation must prevail. The government and people crash head-on with the land speculator when they are sitting on a property that is needed by the government for an important public purpose. As noted in a recent court ruling involving communal land rights, compensation is the just due of the village. It is sensible and honorable for Indian Creek to consider its land a contribution toward its development. For the rest of Belize, it’s an incredible situation when progress stops, or the national coffers are drained to purchase land that just a few years ago government sold for the price of a “location ticket.”

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