Disharmony in Harmonyville; residents meet at police station
Representatives of the Belize Grassroots Youth Empowerment Association and squatters from Harmonyville descended on the capital today. The discord between them has been brewing for some time over who gets to own property at the new community at Mile forty one on the western highway. Today, it went up a few notches when they went to a meeting with the Minister of Natural Resources in the capital. It follows Tuesday’s detention of activist Nigel Petillo by the Belmopan police when he went to make a complaint. The squatters have also complained that BGYEA representatives have destroyed the crops and property they have invested in. The two groups got testy even though this morning’s meeting was quick and produced results. News Five’s Marion Ali was in Belmopan and filed this report.
Marion Ali, Reporting
The meeting among the Minister of Natural Resources, Gaspar Vega, representatives of the Belize Grass Roots Youth Empowerment Association, BGYEA, and former police sergeant, Erwin Munoz representing the squatters at Harmonyville was not the only event of the day. The squatters were present in full force, camping out under a tent outside of the Ministry of Natural Resources’ building.
Some of BGYEA’s representatives gathered on the steps of the building while three others went into the meeting. It lasted for less than an hour, but by the time it was over, the squatters had already made their way over to the Belmopan Police Station where BGYEA member, David Barnett, was filing a report against one of them who he alleges had threatened him on a previous occasion.
Police officers were dispatched to the location where the crowd was previously seated and they escorted this man, a squatter, to the station to deal the matter. After about an hour the complainant and accused came walked out. Barnett said that the complaint followed the alleged incident on March third.
David Barnett, Member, BGYEA
“He was digging a hole. I told him that he was digging the hoe lint he wrong spot—even if the land was his—cause he was digging the host outside of the pillar and he was suppose to dig inside. So the guys flipped the script on me; he was talking English first, he filled the script and said that he only talk Spanish. Immediately Mister Vanzie started to talk to him in Spanish and explain to him the procedure of getting land in Harmonyville.—that this area yah done surveyed, we done issue out is area already and it is impossible for you to get it. For one you have no house here, you have no evidence that you were here. A week after, after this he came out with a machete at me and he said in Spanish that waving his machete that he would chop me or something to that effect.”
Barnett said he didn’t proceed with any charges against the squatter but simply asked the police to explain to him that BGYEA has been given approval to carry on with surveying the area, even if it means going through crops or farms that the squatters have already invested in.
As for the real meat of the matter, the status at Harmonyville, the Minister obliged us an interview and share the government’s perspective on the situation.
Gaspar Vega, Minister of Natural Resources
“The people that already had investment on the land; let’s say farming, we gonna ensure that if they suppose to get a lot or two, they get it in that area that they made a development. Those people that came afterwards and also have made a development, we’re gonna make sure that they keep those lots, but it was clear that everybody was suppose to get one acre. And the rest of people that will be getting lots, new owners, we gonna raffle them.”
But the idea of a raffle is not a good one for the distribution of the land in BGYEA’s view.
Nigel Petillo, President, BGYEA
“From the initial stages, last year February when we went out there, we went right away and start identifying land. If you were interested in this piece of land, alright make it available, start cleaning the land, start investing your money on the land, start fencing, start planting. So I explained to the media, we already know our people who are in place, who are investing on those land; likewise, we know those who have been settling as well at Harmonyville. Ministry of natural Resources along with members of BYGEA recorded not only by names, but by GPS reading of the twenty two homes that were out there present at the time. From then, we have done our own research and find out that there were another fifteen farmers who were farming independently out there apart from those who had homes out there. The Minister wants us to draft up a barrel system where you just put in all the names and you just barrel them out and we are saying that that won’t work. The same concern have been passed by the other people on the other side who are saying that they have their settlements already and they don’t want to see that raffling out their name, Jules end up with mi house and mi plant and whatever they have done.”
“The government is gonna be assisting or subsidizing fifty percent of the survey so that we can get it done quickly which amounts to two hundred dollars per lot.”
“The question of the four hundred dollars, the people who paid in full already, we want to address that Sunday at our meeting. I am inviting the media to come out because there is a lot of other things at Harmonyville that needs to be done. So I want to ask the committee how do we deal with this. Do you want back all your money or we do it together as a committee, put that up in an account for you and whenever we need to address water, roads, buffers and whatnot maybe we could deduct it as we go. That’s something we can try out. That’s me speaking independently—I am not talking for BYGEA, I am not talking for the boys, it’s just an idea and hopefully Sunday when we dash it out, we have better ideas and suggest and opinions and we move together as a community.”
The representative for the squatters, Erwin Munoz did not give any on camera comments and after a back and forth between him and BGYEA representatives at the police station, BGYEA executives decided that since they have found him to be acting in bad faith and because he also owns property elsewhere, they will ask the rest of the membership at their public meeting this Sunday whether they should remove him from the list of applicants at Harmonyville. Munoz, who has admitted that he too is squatting on land at Harmonyville, could not be reached thereafter for comment. But BGYEA President, Nigel Petillo, spared no words.
“Mister Munoz was a member of BGYEA all the while. He have a piece of land there that he already identified for himself where BYGEA concern is ok. And to find out today that he is working against this movement, I think there is something serious that we need to look into that.”
While Munoz was not available for comment, this Mayan woman originally from Punta Gorda who is also a squatter, was willing to tell us that she supports BGYEA’s initiative. Graciana Choc says she ended up at the location after failed efforts to get land at other places in the country. But the recent conflict between the two sides is discomforting for her.
Graciana Choc, Squatter, Harmonyville
“I hear that long, long time deh start to fight. But how I notice, Mister Petillo he never tek the land with nobody, he just demand that he needed for them to pay. That dah when the police man and Mister Petillo they reach dah mi house and they tell me that if we could pay that alright, but we couldn’t pay we have to move all ah we. So that’s why I noh wah move back mommy. I noh got wah good house, I got wah simply house. But my land first until I could see what I can do with my house. So that’s why I mi gone pay.”
While it is the view of many of the parties involved that the conflict between BGYEA members and the squatters is the result of political influence, Minister Vega doesn’t agree.
“All I would want is for this to be finished and for us to go through the process without any hard feelings because at the end of the day, all these people will have to live together and we noh want this crowd noh like dah crowd. We want everybody to be able to live in harmony.”
The two sides met this afternoon with Lands Commissioner, Wilbert Vallegas, to go over in detail the issues brought up with the Minister in this morning’s meeting. Marion Ali for News Five.
Another public meeting by BGYEA is planned for this Sunday at Harmonyville.