Steel beams have been erected inside a 50-metre stretch of Valencia Forest Reserve that runs adjacent to the Eastern Main Road. The farmers of Turure Dairy Farming Establishment who rely on that strip of protected forest land to prevent their cows from wandering onto the roadway, are blaming the situation on an alleged illegal land selling scheme for squatters.
“They are erecting steel posts where they are sectioning off the land that they are squatting on,” said frustrated dairy farmer, Sherwin Vidal during Cari-Bois Environmental News Network’s visit to the site. He claimed that the squatters were buying the land from a “community leader” in a nearby squatting development whose crew comes daily to cut trees to make way for construction.
Vidal and another farmer who asked to be identified as “Junior”, offered to take Cari-Bois News into the forest reserve while emphasising how dangerous the situation had become. The farmers were armed with an air rifle and cutlass for the trip stating, “when these guys come around here, they actually threaten your life.”
In contrast to Cari-Bois News’ last report on the situation from June 30th, a larger number of trees have been freshly cleared and the land cordoned off using wire and C-channel steel beams, which we were told are to prepare plots for sale. In addition, a living structure has been erected while the sign identifying the area as part of the Valencia Forest Reserve had disappeared.
Vidal says the national lockdowns imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic had created the perfect conditions for squatter encroachment.
“When we had the first major lockdown, that is when they took advantage of the situation. They would come during the day because there were hardly people on the road, drop off guys, go inside of the forest and cut whole day. Afternoon time, they would pass and pick them back up. Since the second phase of the lockdown, that is where it gave them ample opportunity again to come and do this.”
Today, with the natural barrier all but gone, it can take just about 30 seconds for the farmers’ animals to escape from the Turure Dairy Farming Establishment to the busy Eastern Main Road.
This has heightened the farmers’ fear of potential cow and car collision while opening up the area to an increase in praedial larceny.
“Since they start cutting here, it’s a set of thieving start taking place,” said Junior.
Vidal explained that with this new access, bandits could enter the farm to take animals and “walk right back out without anything happening.”
Turure Dairy Farming Establishment was created in the 1960s under a government initiative in which state lands were allocated for large-scale dairy development in Trinidad and Tobago.
Vidal and the other farmers have leases for their land which require them to keep at least one cow per acre to maintain the lease. However, now that Junior has had cows, goats and ducks stolen from him, he and many other neighbours are scared to acquire new livestock or leave them unsupervised.
“We want to do things on the farm but there is a risk you are taking now to put animals,” he said.
The farmers are now desperate for help as approximately two weeks ago an individual moved into the newly erected shack in the forest reserve making the situation feel more permanent.
“They only come during the day and when the afternoon comes, they go back where they live further down the road,” Vidal said. He alleges that the occupant has been operating as a look-out for the men who would later return to continue clearing the area.
“Why are they waiting until the place is established and then they decide they want to move the squatters and them?” Vidal asked about the authorities.
He explained that over the past four years, farmers had made multiple complaints to several agencies including the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS), Land Settlement Agency (LSA), the Commissioner of State Lands, and the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries.
However, with the situation worsening, Junior is wondering whether the authorities were waiting for bloodshed before taking action.
“What they waiting for? For somebody to kill somebody?” Junior asked.
Of all the agencies the farmers have dealt with, the Commissioner of State Lands, which reports to the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries, is the only one with the power to enforce the removal of squatters.
For its July 31st story, Cari-Bois News reached out to Dominic Hinds, Communications Manager at the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries who assured Cari-Bois News that an investigation would be launched into the matter. Cari-Bois News once again reached out to the Ministry on September 8th and was advised that the investigation was still ongoing.