It took the January 26 massacre in Lusignan to bring home to the government that it had to confront the situation on the lower East Coast. Typically, one of its responses was to react to the calls by residents to “deal with” the Buxton crisis that has been festering for years. Despite an army presence over a couple of years the solution to what the government sees as the criminal dimension to Buxton seems as far away as when Shaka Blair was killed by the police in 2002.
Last weekend I again visited Lusignan meeting with relatives of the victims whose hopes for improvements in their daily lives are rapidly receding. The wish of many is to pack up and get out, not only from the community but from the country. All these persons claim to have been lifelong supporters of the PPP/C – and indeed the results from successive general elections would support this. As a community they feel deserted, with very little interest shown by officialdom after the initial public intervention.
And over at Buxton, which I also visited, the situation is both different and similar. Hopelessness envelops a once glorious village and poverty is all around. This too is a village that except at one election has given its full support to the PNCR for which it seems to have received little in return. It is a broken community where, like Lusignan, any semblance of participatory democracy vanished decades ago. This is despite the fact that we now have three experienced ministers with relevant experience in the Ministry of Local Government – another example of a waste of taxpayers’ money and the creation of state jobs for party persons.
In their desperation, these communities now alternate between a dream that their political leaders will represent them and anger at themselves for even thinking this will ever happen. Yes the government went in the early days in Lusignan and in their typically imaginative manner even opened an account with one of the shops in the area where those who suffered direct losses could get some material assistance. And in Buxton the leaders of the PNCR have been visiting almost daily to meet with the residents including those who operate farms, but who are now subject to formidable restrictions on access to their farms.
While the government appears to have back-pedalled from the initial decision to clear all the farms in the backlands to improve security, it appears that there is still considerable clearing being done and that the police have been assigned responsibility for assessing and paying. It has been a long time since the government has shown such confidence in the police!
I am not convinced that the police under the Police Act have the authority or the capacity to assess and make compensation payments in what is a very complex technical issue. In fact every Commissioner of Police I have spoken to since 1993 has admitted that the force does not have the capacity to investigate more than basic fraud cases. How it will move from that level of incapacity to being able to assess losses and award compensation beyond the kind we had in the 2005 floods is to be seen. We recall that in 2005, surveys and data bases were conducted at some cost, which should mean that records are available to make some advances to those who suffer losses while their claims are prepared and submitted and for examination and payment.
Before President Jagdeo set up the Commission of Enquiry into the allegations against then Home Affairs Minister Gajraj, it had been suggested that a wider commission should be appointed to look into the matters concerning the East Coast. There can be no better time for that than now with the question of compensation high on its terms of reference. Despite our experiences with the flood we have no legislation or regulations governing the payment of compensation and instead the government relies on benevolence and ‘ad hocism’ to guide policy in this critical area.
Despite the agricultural base of our economy we do not have a Compensation Fund or national insurance system for the sector. Agriculture, even in the best of circumstances is typified by persistent, high and a wide range of risks which could come from rain, sun, drainage and irrigation issues, pests, El Nino and La Nina, poor farming practices and good old government incompetence. Our present Minister of Agriculture holds an MBA, and while this may not have been in agriculture it should allow him to formulate a suitable compensation scheme for “his farmers.”
The Minister would find compensation schemes for agriculture as recent and as close as in Jamaica in August 2007, in South America, in Canada and the US, Europe and Asia. The one model that I especially like is that of Vietnam, setting out in considerable detail the basis for entitlement of compensation arising out of a 2003 resettlement scheme which had as its focus health care.
Given our own experiences, Guyanese would of course be cynical about whether what is set out in theory and law does in fact operate in practice. Usually it does if the citizens and their leaders hold the government accountable. Our constitution and the Investment Act 2004 guarantee citizens adequate and timely compensation, but for all practical purposes those guarantees seem to have been suspended when it comes to Buxton. The farmers who are suffering losses as a result of what Dr Luncheon calls the ‘line of sight’ initiative would certainly be affected, but when a people feels as deserted and dis-empowered as those communities do, constitutional rights are a useless luxury.
In the case of Vietnam, at the very early stages of project preparation, local authorities and leaders of different administrative levels in each of the communities affected were consulted and participated in the project design, while affected persons were informed on an individual household basis. The scheme provided for compensation for assets, income and businesses at full replacement cost with compensation for land regardless of the nature of ownership, while investments made on trees and crops are compensated at full replacement costs at current market prices. The headings under which compensation arose are: agricultural land; temporary loss of agricultural land; secondary affected persons; loss of structure; loss of business and income; loss of crops; and allowance during the transition period.
Guyana and Guyanese have the capacity to rise to this level of thinking rather than some mistaken belief or indeed strategy that we strengthen our own position when we fail to empower others. In fact all we do is push them towards the poverty mill from which the only escape route is out.
What about Lusignan?
This community has lost property and lives, but except in the most objective and impersonal way, it would be impossible to place a value on the lost lives. Yet, is it asking too much that even as it considers compensating the people of Buxton for their crops, that the government go beyond items from a friendly hardware shop and assist the residents of Lusignan who must now look only to private initiatives such as the one by Kaieteur News.
There is nothing revolutionary about victim compensation programmes to provide financial compensation for victims of violent crime. Such programmes are found around the world and in 2000 neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago proclaimed The Criminal Injuries Compensation Act, although I have been unable to ascertain whether the board to administer it has yet been brought into existence.
A typical financial compensation programme provides compensation of defined amounts to victims of reported violent crime who suffer serious injuries, dependants of deceased victims and scholarships for bereaved children. Injuries are not confined to physical or fatal injuries, but may be a medically recognised psychiatric or psychological illness. The schemes are generally statutory and there is no question of benevolence or handouts by politicians. Victims receive these as of right.
The festering problem of Buxton and the massacre in Lusignan must surely wake up the country to the backward state of our laws and management of the country. The absence of local democracy is exacerbating an already fragile national democracy. There is no logical, fair and timely system of compensation for our farmers arising out of natural disasters; databases created one year are destroyed the next. In matters of policing and security, there is an increasing tendency by the state to delegate security to the citizens by way of community policing, while victims are often left to fend for themselves. The knee-jerk reaction to clear the backlands, its almost daily modification and amendment and a display of the most incompetent judgment as to who should evaluate and manage an agricultural compensation programme are as clear signs as we can get that those with the duty to protect our communities have little idea how to do so.
It is time that there was a Commission of Enquiry to look at the whole of the East Coast, including Buxton and Lusignan, and that this be as wide-ranging as possible. We can then have a thorough examination of the root causes of the problems we are facing, no doubt including pitiable pay to the police, local government and economic issues, and consider sensible ways to compensate communities. Since Lusignan, such rational questions have been pushed off the bus.