A squatter’s house among pine trees in the State’s forest reserve in Laurel Hill, Arouca.

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The thousands of hectares of Caroni 1975 Ltd lands being occupied by squatters who do not have valid tenancy documents is one of the challenges facing acting Commissioner of State Lands (COSL) Bhanmatie Seecharan.

Asked for details on the number of people who have illegally occupied state lands, Seecharan could only provide an estimate.

“There are approximately 20,000 parcels of agricultural state lands in addition to approximately 14,000 which belonged to the former Caroni 1975 Ltd covering over 13,000 hectares in Trinidad that now fall under the purview of the COSL,” she said.

Approximately 40 per cent of these parcels of land are occupied by squatters who do not have valid tenancy documents, although some of them might have inherited properties with leases or agreements that have now expired, she explained,

Seecharan said since 2014 her office has taken “at least 200 squatting matters before the magistrate’s courts. However, the majority of these cases were dismissed due to lack of the State’s legal representation.”

Last October, a legal unit was assigned to the Land Management Division.

She said: “In relation to charging squatters, the same can only be done by court order, as this is not catered for in the State Lands Act.”

There are no fines or penalties under the Act which states that a “magistrate shall make an order for putting the person in possession of the lands out of possession and the delivering of the possession to the Commissioner.”

Seecharan has been developing a system for improved data collection and upgraded land information to provide more accurate documentation.

“This will enable proper and valid land management decision-making and the taking of appropriate land management actions. However, this is dependent on adequate funding for personnel and equipment to manage properly,” she said.

Seecharan said the state can end land grabbing if they charge people for trespassing. The Government can also offer amnesty to squatters and loans can also be provided for the illegal occupier to buy the property at a low interest rate. If they fail to pay, Government can repossess the land and sell it to the public, she suggested, adding that fines and penalties can serve as deterrents.