By Abena Rockcliffe-Campbell
Could it be a case where Former President Bharrat Jagdeo tried to incite racial tension by peddling misinformation about the distribution of land by the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission (GLSC)?
While GLSC’s Head Trevor Benn stayed far away from explicitly drawing that conclusion earlier today, he made several references to the fact that all the persons pointed out by Jagdeo yesterday to be involved in a massive land grab scheme have one thing in common — they are all Afro-Guyanese.
Benn hosted a press conference at his Hadfield Street Office to respond to allegations made by Jagdeo to the effect that the commission has facilitated the distribution of land to a select few with close links to the APNU+AFC Government.
Jagdeo alleged too that almost all the distributions were done in the period after the passage of the December 21, 2018 no-confidence motion he sponsored against the government. The Opposition Leader gave the impression that these allocations were hurriedly approved.
However, Benn told the media today that nothing can be further from the truth.
He said that the managerial team of the GLSC has been working tirelessly to eliminate all forms of corruption which he said was inherited as graft took centre stage under the previous administration.
Benn said that he opted to bend the rules a bit today as the Commission is not in the habit of disclosing client information. However, he said that he now deems it necessary in the interest of transparency.
“I am only calling the names that were mentioned yesterday because I think it is unethical to mention our clients,” he said. Benn noted that many of the persons whose characters were besmirched by Jagdeo gave him authority to clarify the misinformation peddled.
Highlighting the case of Chief Elections Officer Keith Lowenfield, Benn said that Lowenfield was part of a group of four persons who filed an application in 2004.
Benn told the media, “It was approved way back then; 1,000 odd acres of land were approved for Charles Ceres et al (including Lowenfield) in 2004. But for whatever reason, they were not issued their title. When I got here and I saw the application I insisted that it must be issued; I do not know what kept it back.”
He said that, unfortunately, it turned out that a number of persons were squatting on that specific land that was approved. Therefore, Benn said that the commission has since taken action to cancel the land. He said, “Look in the official gazette; it is there for all to see that we have taken steps to cancel long before that.”
Benn further said that Lowenfield has since expressed the desire to be granted a lease in another area, “and we have started to do that, and I have no apology.”
Turning to another case where Ceres was cited, Benn explained that the leases in the Canje area was done before he took office and it was later relinquished by Ceres.
He said that the land that Ceres currently has in Liliendaal is just about the last piece that was left in the area after the previous administration’s large scale distribution to a select few.
Benn was keen to note that Ceres is paying far more than any of the other business people who were granted leases for the same area under the previous government, “and he got less than almost all of them. He got less and he paid a lot more money than any one of them are paying.”
Turning his attention to the allegations made about Rights Activist and State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) official Eric Phillips, Commissioner Benn noted that all the approvals were done under the previous administration. He made reference to a social media post by Phillips explaining in detail what occurred.
Benn explained too that two other cases where Jagdeo claimed that acres of land were leased to a former MP and another person close to the government were totally misrepresented. Benn said that those two particular cases were the subjects of court matters. In both matters, he said, the court ordered that the persons be given unhindered access to the lands. Both rulings were handed down since the 1990s. However, Benn said, the former government refused to honour the court orders.
He said that on the other hand, for the simple reason that the GLSC under him is law-abiding, both rulings were honoured and the lands were returned to the persons.
Benn further said that there is nothing in the law prohibiting public officials from accessing lands.
Referencing Jagdeo, Benn said, “that same individual who spoke to you yesterday has thousands of acres of land and again we will show you the evidence.”