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Abaco shanties ‘out of control’

Shantytown structures have grown significantly in the three-plus years since Hurricane Dorian destroyed large shantytowns on Abaco, Central and South Abaco MP John Pinder said yesterday, adding that the situation is “extremely concerning”.

“The Mudd and the Pea have actually just moved a little bit north closer to Treasure Cay and it’s as big as it ever was,” Pinder told The Nassau Guardian. “It is mind-boggling.”

He said many constituents have repeatedly expressed worries over the issue, a long-standing and perplexing one that did not disappear when the monster storm flattened shantytowns in 2019.

“I had been dealing with it at a local government level before becoming a member of Parliament, and as a private citizen even before that, and it is something that is just growing out of control,” Pinder said.

“And the real sad thing is there are two groups in the village. There’s one that are the so-called Haitian-Bahamians; they’re Bahamians. They’ve been here all their life.

“They don’t know [anything] else. They spend their money here … and then, there’s another group that wants to basically just take over and that’s the aggressive group that does not care and is the biggest problem.

“There’s no one solution that covers it all, but it’s becoming an issue to where it’s not only humanitarian, but it’s a security issue.”

In 2021, a Supreme Court judge ordered the government to “cease and desist” further demolitions in shantytowns on Abaco and ruled that the government must get approval from the court if it wishes to demolish structures in shantytowns on the island.

Shantytown residents, represented by Fred Smith, KC, are challenging the government’s 2018 policy, which sought to get rid of shantytowns in The Bahamas.

Implementation of the policy was halted after an injunction — banning demolition on New Providence and parts of Abaco — was granted by Cheryl Grant-Thompson that same year.

The Minnis administration had asked the court to vary the injunction to exclude applicants on Abaco.

The applicants, meanwhile, had asked the court for the injunction to be extended to cover all shantytowns in The Bahamas or, in the alternative, all shantytowns on Abaco.

The injunction now fully covers Abaco.

At the time, Grant-Thompson stated, “This simply means that prior to any further demolition taking place on the island of Abaco, evidence that the homes selected for demolition are in fact in breach of the law should first be presented to and approved by the court.”

Pinder said yesterday, “Since that injunction, the different departments have been a little nervous, not knowing how far they can go.

“In my opinion, we need to go in with the Town Planning Act and those buildings that are not built under the law, then that’s something we can deal with. The humanitarian side of it, we really need to move the injunction or try to get past that particular roadblock.”

He added, “There has to be a way forward. We should be able to defend our sovereignty. But, like I said, there’s a group in there that only knows The Bahamas. This is their home. There’s a whole other half of them that have just come recently or over the past year or whatever. They’re the ones that are the real issue.”

Minister of Works Alfred Sears noted yesterday the shantytown issue impacts multiple areas of The Bahamas.

Sears said that when he visited Eleuthera last week, he visited a shantytown, which is actually land owned by Spanish Wells, and some of the shantytown residents work for people in Spanish Wells.

“I’m going to ask Building Control along with other agencies to go in and do a survey and we will have to review the matter that is in court and we are going to have to come up with a comprehensive set of measures to address this issue because it’s not a one-island issue,” Sears said.

“It is an issue that has come to my attention with respect to Abaco because I saw it and I instructed that an investigation be done and, while I was going to Spanish Wells on Thursday, I was also advised that there is a community [on Eleuthera] and I went and saw it for myself along with the permanent secretary.”

Sears said the problem is multifaceted.

“You have buildings, you have commercial activities without business license and then, of course, the utility companies, [residents] accessing electricity [illegally],” he noted.

“We need to come up with a very comprehensive review in terms of who is there, the scope, what activities and so on.”

Given that the issue is a national one, Sears said it must be addressed in a multidimensional way.

“From what I saw, it is a matter which is a public safety issue because with a hurricane or a fire, you can have really hundreds of people being killed, as happened in The Mud and Pigeon Peas (during Dorian), an undetermined number of people who could just be [killed],” he said.

Asked whether he felt the government’s hands are tied on the issue, given the outstanding court case and the existing injunction, the minister said he is awaiting a written opinion from government attorneys.

He added, “We have to be guided by the rule of law. We have to give deference to the judicial branch because their interpretation is subject to appeals.”

Sears also said, “I think what will also have to be considered is the UN Refugee Commission and multilateral agencies because you’re dealing with a wide spectrum of issues involving immigration, refugees, issues of land, issues of utilities, issues of health as well as issues of national security.”

Pinder said those shantytown residents who only know The Bahamas should be regularized.

He said the shantytown problem must not be left to get even worse than it already is.

“I’m from Abaco and most of my constituency are real Abaconians, so we know that this has been growing and mushrooming for decades, many decades,” Pinder said.

“At the point where The Mud and Pigeon Peas were there, they had their own electricity system; they had their own shops; they had their own commerce and economy.”

Pinder said the aftermath of Dorian presented a prime opportunity to “enforce our laws and not have it happen again”.

“But what they did is gone a little bit north to the Treasure Cay area, which is my colleague’s constituency, and built the same thing over again, and it is getting bigger than it was before,” he said.

Pinder added that stronger action needs to be taken against people who employ illegal immigrants.

“Instead of going after individuals who are possibly illegal or allegedly illegal, go after the employers that are giving them the jobs,” he said.

“They’re only here for money. If you cut the money off, they won’t be here anymore.”