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Who is minding the store?

A Barbadian who left these shores some decades ago to reside in the United States, recently enquired if I was personally hopeful about my country’s future. I pondered momentarily and replied ‘Not really.’ Ever since, I have wondered why I did not give a more positive answer. There are a number of reasons. Firstly, I think too many of Barbados’ problems are structural and chronically systemic. Secondly, I feel that the whole political class on both sides of the partisan divide is not up to the task of transformation in any meaningful sense. Thirdly, I think there has been a decline in the moral sensibilities of Barbadians from all walks of life that will make it difficult to recover. The restoration and transformation of Barbados go way beyond solving our macro-economic difficulties.

I was even more convinced of the sincerity of my conclusion after reading the front-page story in the Sunday Sun of August 11, 2019. One headline screamed Flight Risk another read, Squatting Out of Control. It pointed to an upsurge in squatting in Rock Hall, St. Philip and other districts of Barbados. This was not a result of any lost DLP decade, because like the ZR issues, it spans many decades covering both DLP and BLP administrations. It tells a story of colossal indifference to public safety concerns. In both cases, problems were ignored, the laws were not enforced in spite of what could constitute serious threats to civil aviation, water purity and fire danger. Imagine that in 2007, the Town and Country Planning Department served notice on 36 squatters in Rock Hall. Today, if the report is accurate, some 300 structures exist, mostly occupied by illegal immigrants.

What is shocking is the threefold nature of the danger posed to public welfare. First, there is the threat to aviation. The GAIA stresses the danger from metallic roofing within the airport’s zone space. In 2007, the Director of Civil Aviation had suggested that the roofing could create a deflective surface to the radar energy reflected up to an airline. This could sometimes make air traffic controllers see an aircraft at two different positions on the same screen. Presumably, this could lead to serious error of judgment. Mark you, the land now occupied by the squatters was acquired by Government from its Canadian owner specifically to guarantee airport safety. Second, there is the danger to the water supply in the area and island wide and third, there is the difficulty of access to homes because of the closeness of the impromptu structures inhibiting fire and ambulance entries in cases of emergencies.

What should be even more disconcerting to Barbadians is the political response to these concerns since 2007. Then Prime Minister Arthur accepted Government responsibility for the situation in so far as it threatened aircraft travel. He stated, “Government would be culpable if we are aware that development is taking place that can put safety in the air at peril and do nothing about it.”  On the question of the contamination of the water supply, a senior Health Official remarked that, “We would have spoken to both administrations … but our concerns were ignored and we believe it was due to politics.”

Barbados may not be salvable because there are too many in high places with an interest in the status quo and others who simply do not care. The Auditor General, in a survey done between 2015 and 2018, reported: “Squatting is a costly exercise to Government … and in some cases threatens the quality of the underground water supply especially in Zone 1 areas where there are the infusion of nitrates and bacteria in the water.” It concluded that the Ministry of Housing was not successful in reducing squatting.

What is amazing is that squatters have proceeded to build all kinds of ostensibly permanent structures including a huge two-storey house. Another squatter brazenly displays a Jamaican flag on his abode. There appears to be little hope that the squatting problem will be reversed anytime soon.

The Parliamentary Representative for the area assures us that the Government is ‘working assiduously’ and ‘collecting data,’ but he struck the politically correct note that there will be ‘no chasing people off the land.’ This is hardly cause for hope, particularly as the present Government seems committed to the free movement of regional people with attendant correspondent rights. Unplanned open migration could spell untold problems for Barbadians including slum and shanty town conditions that were never characteristic of the local landscape even in our poorest areas. Already we are hearing of over-crowded slum conditions developing in one of our oldest housing schemes. Who is minding the store?

Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.

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