In early September 2011 residents of Timehri, a community next to Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA), were hopeful that they would attain land titles before the general election in November 2011. The national airport of Guyana was tagged for a major upgrade and expansion project and Minister of Public Works, Robeson Benn, said that the programme to remove all people living on and around airport grounds would continue. It was understood that the immediate area surrounding the airport was the property of the airport. On several occasions small and unfinished buildings had been torn down and there had been numerous instances of clashes between government workers and residents. The most recent clash, after people objected to the use of heavy equipment to level some buildings, had led to intervention by the army. In April 2012 Minister Benn stated that engineering studies for the planned airport works could begin by the end of the month .
Timehri residents met to discuss the government’s plans to remove them from land near CJIA in July 2013. They said they would not leave the lands to make way for the airport expansion, despite the availability of 350-house-lots at nearby Yarrowkabra. Timehri residents said that at least 2,400 people were affected by the relocation plan, living in 400 houses that they had built over the past 50 years. Daniel Fraser, Chair of the Timehri North Citizens Development Committee (TNCDC), said: “No one has said anything to us and we have not been privy to any of the decisions or the processes and we are not prepared to move.” He said neither his community of organisation had been consulted and they would not be going to Yarrowkabra, which he described as swamplands lacking water and electricity supplies and a paved road. Fraser also expressed concerns that the government would not compensate residents for demolition of their houses.
Robeson Benn, now in the role of Transport Minister, ruled out government construction of new houses for people being relocated from Timehri North. He said that pictures of the intended new settlement in Yarrowkabra showed that provision had been made for a school, health centre, playground and other social amenities. He said provisions were also being made to relocate persons on the coast or in other settlements. He said the Airport Relocation Plan had been crafted by a committee that included the Ministries of Transport, Local Government, Housing and Water, Regional Democratic Council, Guyana Civil Aviation Authority, CJIA and Lands and Surveys.
Resident protest outside relocation meeting
In August 2013 several Timehri residents held a picket outside a meeting held by Transport Minister Robeson Benn with a group of other residents. At least 60 households - an estimated 200 persons - living near what had been identified as a “critical area” for extension of the runway at CJIA were being encouraged to relocate to Yarrowkabra. Talks about the planned removal of these residents did not go down well with many other residents who were not invited to the meeting. Under the banner of TNCDC about 100 people picketed the meeting. They gathered at the gates of the Airport Works Department where the meeting was held, as police officers stood guard at the gates, and chanted slogans including: “Timehri North demands equal rights for justice”, “We are organized, we are mobilized, we are recognized, we will not compromise”, “Thisis a Housing matter, not Public Works” and “This is a housing matter, we deal with the Housing Ministry ” . The protesters claimed that they were locked out of the meeting .
A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) parliamentarian, Annette Ferguson was present and stated that the party had been given a copy of a letter that had been sent to a selected few residents, stating that the construction phase of the airport expansion programme was imminent and residents of three relocation zones would have to move from the area. She urged the community to unite and make their voices heard and said the issue was of a civil nature and should not be politicised. She added that the Housing Ministry should be the agency engaging with residents. Robeson Benn requested a meeting with her but she said she declined this offer as it would have been held behindclosed doors . Opposition parties had been pressing the government to come up with a better relocation plan making improved provisions for residents’ needs .
Daniel Fraser of TNCDC said residents were opposed to the government segregating the group and requested that the matter be dealt with in a holistic manner. He explained that residents had held an emergency meeting and since nothing concrete had been presented to them regarding their relocation they had decided to turn up at the Works Ministry as one unit. He said, “We are suspicious of everything that the government is doing and additionally we recognise that lot of equipment is on site but what we have discovered is that at no stage have these people come to us and tell us anything not in the even most miniscule matter ”. Funding for the airport expansion had been put on hold by the National Assembly but the government appeared to be set to continue the project .
Some of the placards outside the meeting which only includedselected residents read: “Timehri North, we are settlers not squatters”, Timehri North, all for one, one for all” and “Build us a Pradoville to take our homes”. The total area earmarked for airport expansion contained 2,500 residents consisting of 394 families, made up of 789 women, 697 men and 878 children. Sherlanda Daniels, Public Relations Officer for Timehri North Development Council, said:
“Our issue is a civil issue and not a political one and we are asking the government to treat it as such. The Ministry of Housing already did an occupational survey and persons were given lot numbers with utilities. They ask for us to fill in application forms and for us to pay $70,000 for the land. Many have invested their all, so we are saying the government should not have fragmented meetings, since to date, they have not shown us a plan and we would like to see the plan they have for us. Relocation is more than moving a house, there are economic and social implications ”.
Destruction of farmland and crops
In October 2013 it was reported that the crops of some farmers on the JCIA land reserve had been destroyed by the airport expansion contractor. This made farmers worried that they would be uprooted permanently without due process. One affected farmer, Royston Holder, said: “Without any notice the Chinese people (Employees of China Harbour Engineering Corporation) came with dey machines Friday and just start to grade down all our stuff…eddoes, all them bearing coconut trees, sour sop, sweet potatoes, cassava, papaw, cherry, de peas everything.”
Holder acknowledged that the land he farmed was state owned but was distressed at the manner in which his crops were destroyed. He said he was not hopeful as he did not know what would happen to his mother and siblings should they be forced to move, as farming was all he knew and the government had not offered any alternative for people in his position. His family farm was started by his father over 30 years ago and he had worked hard with his bare hands to clear big trees and make the land fertile. Another farmer, Tyson,pointed to an area of his farm that he said had been destroyed by people carrying out CJIA expansion works. He was upset about the way in which his produce was uprooted and said:
“We can’t stop them because is government land and they say is for development and so but we want them to see how hard we work and they could put something in place that we could get some other land to farm somewhere…we want to give we time too to reap these things and not let them waste.”
Chair of TNCDC Daniel Fraser told Stabroek News he believed that the farmers should remain where they are as they were given permission years ago and foresaw confrontation if destruction of the farms continued. He asked, “They are sending foreigners into a land to destroy the people’s living. The constitution said ‘Land to the Tiller’ and they are tilling that soil for over 20 years…they got approval from the past government…isn’t that worth anything in their eyes.”
TNCDC issued a press release saying, “We wish to state with pellucid clarity that the government continues through the Ministry of Public Works, to act as though there is a consensus, based on discussion and dialogues, and that residents who have inhabited these lands for generations, are inanimate beings.” The press release said that the government had not afforded any avenue for discussion of relocation plans and stated that the TNCDC was undertaking an Involuntary Relocation Plan which they would present to the Ministries of Housing, Human Services and Finance and to parliamentary opposition parties for their consideration and action.
Sand mining impacts on health and farms
A video on the Timehri North Pioneer Facebook page, posted on 24th March 2014 and titled ‘A caring government bullies its black farmers’, showed sand being used in CJIA expansion encroaching onto farmland . In September 2014 officials estimated that CJIA expansion, including the runway extension and new terminal, would require more than 670,000 truckloads of sand. A concession to mine sand near an old glass factory in the Yarrowkabra area was made available to BK International, the firm contracted to supply sand and filling materials. Under the contract with CHEC the government was obligated to provide material from within 12 kilometres of the airport . Significant sand mining activities in Timehri North had caused concerns for residents over destruction of their environment and damage to their health. According to a report by TNCDC several heavy-duty trucks belonging to CHEC were traversing the area taking truckloads of sand from within the community. The Timehri North community raised concerns over sand mining causing destruction of their environment and roads. Unearthing and transportation of enormous volumes of sand made the community worried over the health impacts. TNCDC stated:
“Already, the dust issues are plaguing residents, as large and unusual build-up of dust can be seen on the furnishings and other household paraphernalia…The expectancy of sand-associated and related irritants and illnesses such as silicosis, miner’s phthisis, grinder’s asthma, potter’s rot and other such illnesses can certainly have devastating effects on the lives of residents, especially those vulnerable ones like infants and children, those incapacitated and the aged, those asthmatics and who suffer with any form of lung infection.”
Residents said there had been no public hearing or meeting about the sand-mining and transportation activities, nor had they been warned about the negative impacts. Residents also expressed concerns about large sand pits where sand had been extracted within the community. Some of the sand pits were large enough for children to fall in. One resident told Kaieteur News, “Our children play within these areas, we farm here and work here and this is not healthy”. Farmers feared that sand mining activities would reach new areas that they had moved to after being removed from their initial farming sites. Previously, an argument with CJIA workers had led to cessation of land clearing a few yards away from their newly established farms. A stretch of road was being destroyed by heavy duty trucks laden with sand and the government was not maintaining the road. An investigation revealed that labourers had used a bulldozer to clear the parapet that interlocked with the main access road. Sand was also being removed from a road leading to an area that was being used for farming. TNCDC explained that heavily laden trucks were traversing public highways at speeds comparable to minibuses and alleged that some of the trucks were unlicensed and unregistered, having no number plates. Truck operators claimed to have permission from the government. Some residents said that sand was being taken out of the community but not used for the airport runway project, which appeared to have stalled as hardly any work on the project was taking place.
Residents pressured to relocate
In December 2014 Stabroek News reported that Timehri North residents faced continuing pressure to relocate, even though there was no communication from authorities about where they were expected to go or compensation for crops that were destroyed for CJIA expansion works. Royston Holder said he was one of 1,500 people in the area, many of them farmers, who had received a letter giving them just 14 days to dismantle their homes and relocate. Many farmers had lost lots of crops and vegetables. Holder, a father of two who had lived and farmed in the area for 16 years said his entire farm was destroyed at the start of the airport expansion. He also attributed his uncle’s death to stress caused by the project:
“I lost hundreds of coconut trees…crops get destroyed for me. My uncle farm get destroyed, his eddoes, ground food, everything. They did all bearing ‘cause my uncle was there doing farming for about 20 years. He have seven children and right now he pass out because with the way how the project going it stress he out and he get heart attack and he dead.”
Following the destruction of his farm in 2012 Holder had started another farm in another part of the community. He was getting some income from the farm but still suffering from his losses. At a press conference APNU MP Joe Harmon called for the government to make a full disclosure about the status of the expansion project, including whether it was adhering to international standards for the relocation of residents. He also said that the contract for the airport expansion project stipulated that the government was responsible for delivering sand to the site and also for prohibiting the contractor from digging up sand from a section of land in the community .
In December 2014 Timehri North residents still faced the eventuality of their homes being bulldozed by the Public Works Ministry, but they were determined to continue their social and family life. The Ministry had one more than one occasion bulldozed homes in the community, destroying new but incomplete structures, old homes and even foundations. Authorities stated that no more homes could be built, nor completion of unfinished buildings. But residents seemed ready to defend and invest in their homes and had renovated and painted them for the Christmas holidays. Residents were being regarded as squatters, which was inaccurate as they had worked with the government to regularize the community and provide amenities including water, electricity and telephone landline service. Sherlanda Daniels of TNCDC said, “The government has never addressed the magnitude of the interference on the family aspect of this issue. These are people’s lives and they are very much attached to the social fabric of things, it’s not like a bag of stone that you can remove from one place to another ”.
In April 2015 the Ministry of Public Works threatened to arrest and charge Timehri residents whom they claimed were squatting on airportproperty. Established residents told Kaieteur News that young, financially deprived people were seeking places to build small houses and some of them had already settled and started families. The Ministry of Public Works said it was “extremely disturbed and disappointed by the barefaced actions of squatters who continue to clear lands vested to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) despite repeated warnings by the Police and law enforcement officers, squatters persist to clear and burn sections of lands to erect structures and farms”. The Ministry said ‘cease and desist’ signs would be erected in the area and law enforcement officers would arrest and charge anyone breaching the order. The Ministry also stated that relocating squatters to suitable areas to ensure their source of income or livelihood was a priority. Timehri residents tore down and destroyed the ‘no squatting’ signs just two days after they were erected, despite the warmings of criminal charges and police intervention. The Ministry of Public Works stated “squatters on airport lands are again warned to, desist from this activity because of its implications for the Cheddi Jagan International Airport Expansion project and the maintenance of law and order and property rights” .
Only 19 families displaced, new houses provided
In August 2015 Public Infrastructure Minister David Patterson said that the thousands of Timehri North people whom the previous administration wanted to displace would no longer have to relocate to facilitate expansion of the CJIA runway. At a press conference he said:
“We have a moral and social responsibility to those people and as such, no more than twelve to fifteen persons may have to be relocated…if they are to be relocated, they will be accommodated approximately one mile away…this is to ensure they do not lose their roots with the community…their children can remain in the same schools.”
Patterson had taken over the aviation portfolio in May 2015 and residents had waited anxiously for three months for word on whether the government would regularise their community. Other relevant government departments had not yet decided on the matter. Minister of Communities Ronald Bulkan said he was unaware of discussions on regularising the residents and junior Minister for Housing Keith Scott said he had not yet thought about the issue. Timehri North residents remained on the land even though homes had been bulldozed, farms destroyed and they had endured a constant police presence .
In July 2016 Stabroek News reported that Timehri residents being forcibly relocated for the CJIA expansion project were breathing a sigh of relief as the government had begun constructing new houses for them. A relocation housing scheme was being developed a short distance from where the residents were living. Patterson said “It is in phases, but I would expect that it should be completed by [year-end]…No-one will be shortchanged so if you had a 10 by 10 wooden house, we will rebuild for you a 10 by 10 wooden house and so forth”. Nineteen families would be moving into the new houses .