Under the State of Emergency regulations, gatherings of more than ten persons are disallowed, making yesterday’s meeting in Cotton Tree Village, Cayo District highly illegal. The criticism was that land activist, Nigel Petillo, put the lives of Belizeans at risk by organizing the meeting during a pandemic. Petillo countered this by stating that he believed that the meeting was within the regulations considering that the people were spaced out and had on masks. Regulations aside, however, there is another aspect of illegalities in this situation where Petillo is leading a charge to squat on lands that are privately owned. Fellow activist Patrick Rogers was part of the gathering and indicated that the farmers are entitled to the land, despite it being private property. He added that they have every right to fight for it.
Nigel Petillo, Land Activist: “You call it an illegal gathering because poor people are registering their frustrations ? This is what you call an illegal gathering ? A bunch of voters, poor people, registering their frustration how is this an illegal gathering ? You know what the elites are on the beach right now. The elites are swimming, they’re gathering, where are the police ? The elites are out there having a good time and we are here on a Sunday when we could have been cooking our rice and beans, we could have washed clothes, we could have been preparing for tomorrow.”
Patrick Rodgers, Activist: “Facey is how the English man came right here and took away these lands from our Mayas and Misquito, they didn’t even tell you about the Misquito they used them in this whole take over of this land land here. Squatters rights Belize so don’t tell us anything it’s in our blood, we’re born with squatting in us. We here our people are not lazy they want land but some of them are fifteen years in the civil service, police department and can’t get a land from red or blue. Our people out here want one acre or five acres that they know they can handle and the government will try to set the police against us the police are not against us.”
Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams, spoke on the matter as well, stating that the farmers were all in violation of the law and are subjected to being arrested. Despite this, however, the Commissioner commanded his officers to show restraint.
Chester Williams, Commissioner of Police: “We saw a huge number of persons gathered under the guise of getting land, I don’t know if the land minister was there or we have a new Minister of Lands I don’t know but the gathering was outright illegal. If you go into the regulations in section five it speaks to the restriction of movements during this time of state of emergency and it is saying that if you’re not moving for one of the reasons stipulated in the regulation then your movement should be restricted. What we saw over the weekend in Cotton Tree was an outright case of a number of persons who were gathering illegally and they all breached the state of emergency regulation. Not withstanding that we’re still trying to see how best we can be reasonable with people because as we much as we have video footage that shows us exactly who were out there and we can proceed against them we believe that these persons for the most part were out there because they were invited to be there by one or two individuals and so we’re only dealing with the persons who caused them to be out there instead of dealing with the whole crowd. It is not that the police want any confrontation with anybody I don’t think this is the time for us to be having any confrontation I believe this is the time for us to unite. As a people we all need to do our part to ensure that we prevent or stop the continued spread of the virus in our country. What happened out there again put a number of persons at risk. Can you imagine if one person was out there and that person had the virus how so many persons could have been infected because when you look at the video footage people were not even practicing social distance some people were not wearing masks so all of these are things that could have caused the virus to spread and to me it was reckless and to see that what was being said that it is getting land for poor people when I look at some of the persons in the video footage these are not poor people. The organizer himself had been down this venture before and he had been issued land by the government in another part of the country where he has gotten his share, why is he doing this again and trying to play on the emotions of people to join him in an illegal act. Then some people expect that while this occur the police must just stand idle by and just allow an illegal activity that puts a number of our Belizean people at risk to just go on we cannot operate like that. We cannot allow a person to whenever he feel like he can take somebody land he just step in bring a crowd and do what he wants to do then his conduct will be endorsed by the state and then makes it legal. We cannot do that because if we continue to do this the individual sooner or later will come and take your land any my land if he believes that he is entitled to it so we have to ensure that we do things the way it ought to be done especially in the era that we’re in. We’re in a time of pandemic, the least they could have done was to wait for this pandemic to be over and then try to see how is it that they can try to acquire whatever piece of land that they want. The land from what I’m told is private and if it is that the owner of the land have not paid taxes for a number of years that still does not give them the authority to go in and believe that they can strong the land. There is again process by law that would allow the state if it is that the person has not paid land tax for a number of years for the state to acquire that land but it goes through a process. So they could have brought it to the attention of the state and say “Well you know what this land is owned by so and so, they have not paid land tax from what they have been made to understand, the state do it’s due diligence and if it is found that that is the case then you write the person, because you have to give the person due process, write the person explain to the person that they have not paid land tax for a number of years and they’re being given so much time to pay the land tax if they don’t pay the land tax the land will be repossessed by government; that’s the process to go through not to go on person’s land and clear and think that you can distribute it to people it does not work like that and like I said in this time we have to ensure that the society we live in is one that promotes peace.”
Love News sought comment from the Ministry of Natural Resources on the matter of the land issue. According to CEO Kerry Belisle, since the land is privately owned, the situation would have to be dealt with between the owner and the farmers. He also mentioned that to claim squatter’s rights that would be another legal process the farmers would have to go through.
Kerry Belisle, CEO, Ministry of Natural Resources: “The land that is currently under question is really privately held land and the Ministry of Natural Resources really actually administers government land so it is really a matter for the private owner to treat on and so that the Ministry’s role is at least at this time is very marginal because it is really a private land that is being questioned. What course is taken over the next few weeks or how the matter transpires I guess remains to be seen but at this point it is really a matter of private interest and I think that is the initial treatment on the matter. By and large if anybody wants to take ownership of property that is privately held the course would be to purchase it so as I can best see it anybody who wishes to acquire private land would have to meet with the owner of that land and they would have to agree on some price to purchase it, that would be the normal course as I see it. I would say that while not trying to get into the details of it making a claim for squatters rights in itself they have a process so whether in fact there is a legitimate claim to be made that is a different question. What I would say is that the matter of speaking to disposing someone of private property is a separate question.”
Petillo has announced that he is tentatively planning to reconvene at the end of May.