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    Harmonizing Development and the Environment

Posted on Tuesday, 24 April 2012 by Barry A. Wade


The achievement of sustainable human development, environmental integrity and the church's preferential option for the poor cannot be realized without the consideration of and application of concepts of community, land tenure and environmental justice, both at the local and global levels. In this brief presentation I shall attempt to show how these concepts are essential for solving three critical environmental problems that endanger the achievement of equity and shalom for the poor in Jamaica as well as in virtually every third world or developing country. I refer specifically to problems of (1) land tenure (or landlessness), (2) squatting, and (3) environmental refugees.


John S. Mbiti (1969) in his landmark work on African Religions and Philosophy quotes the Akan proverb of West Africa as follows, "I am because we are; and because we are, therefore I am". By this he understands that the individual does not and cannot exist alone, but only in community. He owes his existence to other people, including those of past generations as well as his contemporaries. He is simply a part of the whole, without which he is less than a complete human being. Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his own being, his privileges, and his responsibilities towards himself and towards other people. It is therefore in community that the individual is able to express his sense of belonging, his personal identity, and his acknowledgement of responsibility.

But this understanding of communities exists not only among African people. It is to be found in all native peoples everywhere, of which the World Bank has identified about 300 million worldwide. They comprise distinct communities wherever they occur and the land on which they depend is inextricably linked to their identities and culture. John Mbiti puts it this way: "Africans are particularly tied to the land because it is the concrete expression of both their (past) and their (present)".

Land Tenure

The inextricable connection between human communities and land has been captured in the traditional proverbs of many native peoples. I quote just two from Ethiopia:

"We are at peace....as long as our land is under our control"


"As long as we are on our own land, bread is like steak".

These sayings seek to highlight and cement in the minds of every Ethiopian that people and land are not only inseparable - it is also their essential connectedness that preserves both community and environment, or what the Psalmist refers to as "the earth and its fullness thereof: the world, and they that dwell therein". Furthermore, any attempt to separate a people from their land is an act of immense injustice, and where this has been done, as has happened so many times throughout history, whole cultures and peoples have been destroyed, some without any trace of survivors. As Mbiti has observed: "To remove Africans by force from their land is an act of such great injustice that no foreigner can fathom it".

Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice has been defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of their status, with respect to the development, implementation and empowerment of environmental laws, regulations and policies. It is achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as well as equal access to a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work (Land Loss Prevention Project, 2011).

Environmental injustice, on the other hand, exists when members of disadvantaged, ethnic minorities and other groups suffer disproportionately from environmental risks and hazards or from violation of their human rights due to environmental actions undertaken by others. To put it more succinctly, environmental injustice occurs when vulnerable people are taken advantage of through environmentally related actions. And who are these vulnerable people? They are usually the poor, the weak, the displaced and the rejected. In Jamaica, they are the landless, the homeless and the jobless. And how can their environmental injustice be addressed? It is only by determined and opposite policies and actions that recognize their equality as human beings and their need for protection and restoration.

For environmental justice to positively impact the poor in Jamaica, as elsewhere, the society needs to recapture a proper understanding of community, land tenure and natural justice as fundamental requirements for national well being and development and to put these into practice through national policies, plans and programmes. I will now address these in light of the three problematic areas of Landlessness (Land Tenure), Squatting and Environmental Refugees.


There is a Kenyan proverb which has many parallels among native peoples around the world. It says: "The earth is not a gift from our parents; it is a loan from our children". This means it is not ours to neglect, to abandon or to squander. It is ours to utilize and to safeguard well so that we may be able to pass it on in good condition for generations to follow.

However, it is a sad fact of history that people who still occupy and steward their traditional lands are in the minority due to the ravages of worldwide conquest, domination and colonialism, as these have driven peoples from their lands, deprived them of their resources, or simply killed them off by war, disease or other means. Hence, worldwide, native peoples have found themselves in spatial and cultural retreat leading to their fragmentation and decline. Inevitably this has involved the loss of land, the struggle for scarce resources and the introduction of unsustainable land use practices including, for example, forest removal, slash and burn farming techniques, and strip mining.

In Jamaica the story is well known. Colonizing Spaniards arrived, the Tainos were decimated, plantation ownership resulted in deforestation and the transformation of land for mono-cropping, African slaves were imported for their labour but were given no freeholds of their own and, eventually with emancipation, they were placed on the most marginal lands in small land holdings to eke out their existence. Today the problems of landlessness, poor land use practices, low productivity, and lack of community wholeness are all a direct result of that history. How do we now address them?

First, let me acknowledge that the nature of these problems is not unknown to the Government of Jamaica and steps have been taken in recent times to address at least some (JIS, 2011). Since the year 2000, the Government's Land Administration and Management Programme (LAMP) has sought to alleviate poverty and enhance economic growth by improving land tenure security through the development of an efficient system of land titling and administration. Operating now in ten parishes throughout the island, the programme has targeted about 15,000 small informal land holders by facilitating the acquisition of land titles. However, the programme acknowledges that this is but a small drop in the enormous ocean of informal land holder needs throughout the island and that the cost of the titling process for a parcel of land of only about quarter an acre at $55,000 to $65,000 is prohibitive to most.

Clearly, this programme needs to be expanded exponentially to include not merely 15,000 land holders but 150,000 and more and to incorporate additional strategies for giving land holders a legal right to land they have occupied and/or worked for several years.

Two approaches have been suggested in the publication "Whose Common Future", by The Ecologist (1993). The first is what he calls "The Reclaiming of the Commons". This is the placement of substantial tracts of lands in the care of discrete communities who will have control over possession and use of the land by legitimate community members. In this way, land can be reapportioned among individuals who can then have decision making powers over their allotments, subject to the communities' common purpose and oversight. The challenge for the Government in this case would be to vest in communities and not just in individuals the right to occupy and manage the land. Fewer than 15,000 communities thus vested, would cover the vast majority of landless persons in the island. According to The Ecologist, by utilizing what he calls "The Weapons of the Weak", communities would be able to combine traditional and new approaches to land use and management and to develop appropriate strategies to meet local needs.

A second approach to land tenure which is gaining support in a number of countries is the placement of land by legitimate individual owners in "Land Trusts". Whoever farms the land is granted the long term right to use it under conditions agreed by the trustees. However, the sale of the land is forbidden and what the farmer owns is not the land but the long term right to use it (The Ecologist, 1993). In this scenario, the Government provides tax breaks and other incentives to encourage appropriate use and management of the land.

The above two approaches are not the only ones that may be employed to promote and ensure legitimate land access, use and management. However, in both cases, it is not only the land that stands to benefit but also the occupying communities whose sense of belonging, identity and responsibility would be enhanced. In Jamaica, both are of critical importance and both need to be addressed if environmental equity is to be achieved.


Squatting is the illegal or unauthorized occupation of housing or land, usually for purposes of residence or farming. It is a ubiquitous problem in third world or majority countries and is an example of land use that Hernando DeSoto (2000) describes as "Dead Capital" since the economic potential of land on which the squatting takes place cannot be fully realized. This is because there is no legal entitlement for the occupiers, no means of transfer or exchange for cash, loans, or a mortgage, and no real capital increase over time.

Yet, in strict economic terms, squatting represents one of the largest capital resources in the world, however unrecognized it may be. In many third world countries such as Haiti, Egypt, and Peru, up to 90% of the population lives on squatted land, especially in rural areas. DeSoto estimates that worldwide, squatting may occupy land to the value of US$ 9.3 billion.

In Jamaica, according to a Ministry of Housing Survey in 2008 (GOJ, 2008), there were 754 squatting communities scattered across the island, comprising 0.6 - 0.9 million people; that is, some 25% to 33% of the population. 76% of these communities are located on Government lands, 38% of which are on arable land and 10% in environmentally fragile areas, for example, along gully courses, on steep hillsides, and on road and railway line reserves. 66% of the 754 squatter settlements in Jamaica have existed for more than 20 years and, within the last 6 years, there has been nearly a 20% increase in their numbers.

Clearly, squatting in Jamaica is not at the same level as in neighbouring Haiti, with 97% squatters in the rural areas, but it is growing rapidly with no immediate reduction in sight. How can this growing problem be tackled? To begin to answer this, we need to identify and clearly understand all the essential features of the squatting phenomenon, both positive and negative. First the positive:

  1. Squatting provides shelter for a sizeable proportion of the population without any direct cost to the Government or the Private Sector. People have to live somewhere and everyone, no matter how poor, needs shelter. For the landless poor, therefore, squatting is not only necessary, it is also inevitable.2.Squatting in clusters of 10 or more dwellings, but more typically of 100 or more, creates a measure of community living, however tenuous it mightFor many squatters, these are the only communities they will ever be a part of.3.Squatting in these communities allows for the provision of common amenities, even if illegally obtained (for example electricity and water). In South Africa the Government provides free water and sanitation to squatter communities, thus legitimizing their access to these essential services.4.Squatting provides a level of homegrown security and other informal social services by way of area leaders (dons?), midwives and nannies, builders and repairmen, and such others.

But squatting also has many negative features.

  1. Squatting destroys the best land use options and forecloses its planned development with appropriate social infrastructure.2.Squatting enables and somewhat encourages rural-urban migration.3.Squatting engenders the development of dysfunctional communities, often accommodating crime and violence.4.Squatting damages environmental resources, frequently leading, for example, to the degradation of watersheds, the pollution of water bodies, the accumulation of human waste (both solid and liquid), the impairment of drainage with increases in flooding, and increases in hazard vulnerability.5.Squatting usually entails poor public health conditions due to inadequate water quality, poor waste disposal, and a high frequency of communicable diseases.

    And what is the future of squatting in Jamaica? Can this seemingly intractable problem be solved or are we moving inevitably towards a situation in which the majority of our people will be living in squatter communities, while the quality of their communal lives deteriorates further?

    Many countries have tried to solve the squatter problem solely by legal means - that is by more severe legislation and stricter enforcement, but the results have been disastrous. Since people must live somewhere, expelling homeless or landless people from squatter communities only drives them elsewhere, often on to less suitable lands or to areas of potentially greater human conflict. Surely, the answer must lay elsewhere. The following approaches have been put forward by several thinkers and practitioners in the field and some are being implemented by responsive governments.

    The first is to identify and analyze the local nature of squatting, which is not just about unscrupulous, unemployed, lazy or poor people doing the best thing they know how at the least cost to themselves. As one writer has observed, official squatting in Jamaica started the day after emancipation on August 2, 1838, and was the direct result of failed government policies, an unsustainable economy, and destructive social conditions. The same is true today. Hence, to a very great extent, squatters are victims more than they are perpetrators of their condition.

    The second approach is to recognize that the extent of squatting is usually directly proportional to the degree of landlessness. As discussed above, landlessness destroys community, two of the most fundamental requirements of which are shelter and food. To recall the Ethiopian proverb, "When we are on our own land, bread is like steak". Therefore, a key to solving the squatting problem is to make land available and affordable to the homeless, either individually or as members of viable communities, but with everyone having security of tenure.

    A third approach is to transform dysfunctional squatter communities into viable, functional and supportive ones, by putting in place necessary physical infrastructure and by providing social amenities that foster environmental health and well being. This approach is being pursued country-wide in South Africa with good results.

    A fourth approach which may or may not incorporate the above is to provide available housing units at discounted prices to the homeless, such as with the Government of Jamaica's Operation Pride. However, the upfront cost to the Government and the homeless are usually so steep, that they become prohibitive to the majority of needy persons.

    Time does not permit to discuss how any or all of the above may be implemented by the Government of Jamaica. What is certain, however, is that they will require decisive, courageous, and well thought out policies and programmes to make them work.

    Until this is done, we will continue to read newspaper headlines, emanating from both the public and private sectors, such as the following:

  1. "Squatting Epidemic: Enforcement Unit to be Implemented"
  2. "Government Gets Tough on Squatting"
  3. "Senator Wants Squatting Criminalized"
  4. "Trelawny Moves Against Squatting"
  5. "Jamaicans Urged to Desist From Squatting"
  6. "MP Wants Zero Tolerance to Squatting"
  7. "Squatting - A Dominant Problem in Jamaica"

While we can understand the reasons behind these glaring headlines and also admit that some, even many, squatters are simply free-loaders, we should also acknowledge that the dominant approaches of criminalization and zero tolerance as indicated by these headlines are doomed to failure.

The Bible speaks about a Year of Jubilee every 50 years in which land is to be rested, the poor are to be provided for, debtors are to be forgiven, slaves are to be released, and families are to be restored on their land. It will take a government and a people that recognize that law enforcement is not the answer to the problems of homelessness and squatting to effectively restore wholeness and wellness to people and the environment. What is required are serious long term policies and programmes to increase land tenure, enhance community development and ensure environmental justice, especially for the poor. Maybe we should designate the year 2012, the fiftieth year of Jamaica's independence as a year of Environmental Jubilee. We will return to this idea later.

Environmental Refugees

At this time, the issue of environmental refugees is not as major a problem in Jamaica as it is elsewhere, for example in neighbouring Haiti. However, it is a growing problem and we should address it sooner than later.

Environmental refugees are created when persons have to move by government or some other edict or by forced environmental circumstances from their place of residence to some new location. We have seen this in an extreme form in Haiti following the devastating earthquake of 2009, followed by a series of hurricanes within a few months. In their case over one million persons were made homeless and had to seek shelter in makeshift camps in locations and circumstances with which they were not familiar. To a much lesser extent, but no less real, was the situation in Jamaica following Hurricane Gustav which left many people homeless or severely threatened in the riverside communities along the banks of the Hope River. In this case the Government sought to relocate affected householders from Kintyre, Tavern and August Town to newly constructed, secure housing on stable land in St. Thomas. However, this created quite an uproar among St. Thomas residents who protested that they would not tolerate strangers from outside communities coming to live among them. "Not in my backyard", the NIMBY principle, was their complaint as they feared the intrusion of displaced persons of unknown integrity into their community. Several years before, a similar problem arose when the Government sought to relocate residents from the informal settlement of Mona Commons to new locations in the August Town area. So great was the opposition to this move that the plan had to be abandoned.

Similar situations, but on a much larger scale, have occurred in Africa following severe drought and famine, in the South Pacific as a result of tsunamis and sea level rise, in Latin America due to warring and economic incursions, especially into rain forests, and even in Belize following the capture of land by illegal migrants from neighbouring countries. What has characterized all these forced movements has been the loss of traditional homelands, the disruption of communities and culture, and the unwelcoming reception of the receiving people. In Jamaica, as elsewhere, there are no simple solutions for displaced people, but if landlessness, squatting, and increased impacts from climate change continue to impact whole communities, we may see the emergence of many more environmental refugees in our times.

Incidentally, most of the environmental refugees we have encountered in Jamaica have come from Haiti, but the authorities here have not taken much care to identify environmental refugees separate from political or economic refugees, nor to treat with their legitimate search for alternative settlements and better living conditions.

I am not now able to suggest approaches by the Government to this growing problem beyond what I have proposed for landlessness and squatting, but I simply wish to reiterate that it is only when we develop bold and clearly articulated policies that address these problems and incorporate them into practical plans and programmes that we will be able to formulate meaningful solutions to them. For now, I only wish to go on to question the role of the church in these matters of clear environmental injustices, especially to poor people?

Environmental Justice in a Christian Society

So far, I have spoken mainly about the role of Government in addressing the environmental injustices inherent in the three-fold problems of landlessness, squatting and the displacement of peoples. But what is the role of the Christian community as expressed within their local churches and what is its influence in the wider society, especially a society which claims to be Christian in its culture and ethics?

The Bible is not silent on the matter of environmental justice and Leviticus chapter 25 speaks volumes about it with regard to the people of Israel occupying and stewarding the land that was to be theirs after 40 years wandering in the wilderness. In Leviticus 25, the sabbatical and jubilee year principles are expounded for care of the land, the release of slaves, provision for the poor, and the restoration of families. Here too we find a clear link between the prosperity of the land and the welfare of the poor. That is, looking after the land and looking after the weak and disadvantaged in our midst cannot be divided into two unconnected responsibilities. After all, as the revered former Prime Minister of India once remarked "Poverty is the worst form of pollution."

So what is the church's responsibility, and I may add opportunity, for the poor among us who suffer due to landlessness, squatting and displacement? I suggest here, as I have done elsewhere, a threefold approach - first, to make ourselves aware of the real causes and consequences of environmental suffering among the poor; second, to examine our own attitudes with regard to the plight of the poor and to see ourselves as having a direct responsibility for their deliverance from bondage. And third, to engage in meaningful actions that would help to relieve their suffering. This is what the church did in post-emancipation Jamaica when they developed free villages for occupancy of the freed slaves and the building of community on their own lands.

In this year of Jamaica's jubilee celebration, I propose that the church in Jamaica announce its own Year of Jubilee, not of independence from foreign governance, but of a newly recognized responsibility for care of the environment and for the poor who suffer because of our poor stewardship of it. I therefore call on the church to be the nation's advocates on behalf of the landless and homeless and to proclaim and practice the jubilee principle of land stewardship, renewal and restoration, as well as the forgiveness of debt and provision for the poor. No more should the church be silent such as it was over the proposed St. Thomas relocation of the Hope River flood victims, nor be merely judgmental over the evils of squatting, nor be complacent about the vulnerability to hazards to which the poor are exposed due to their occupancy of marginal lands. What we have seen happen in Haiti in recent years is a very likely possibility in Jamaica. Will the church be a vanguard not only for the avoidance of such a human disaster through adequate preparedness, but also be a responsible responder to the environmental horrors that come with it? Will we welcome the refugees, take them into our public and private spaces, and be for them a shelter in the storm of their lives as well as the way through their wilderness experience into a promised land?


I conclude these reflections with a quotation that has meant much to me in recent times as I have entered the eighth decade of my own life and journeys. It comes from the title of Marshall Goldsmith's book (2007) on how successful people may become even more successful. It simply says "What got you here won't get you there". New thinking, new paradigms, new policies and new actions are what is required if we are to achieve sustainable human development and environmental integrity and justice for all, especially the poor, in this decade and the decades to come.

And this must apply also to the church, not to abandon its firm tenets of faith, but to embrace new approaches to applying its mission to all peoples, everywhere at all times. For too long the church has been silent on matters of the environment and the injustices meted out to the poor, especially with regard to landlessness, homelessness and environmental security. I believe there are real opportunities for the church to play a leading role in Jamaica in calling the nation to right the environmental injustices so prevalent and evident in our land, and also to demonstrate by example how that may be done.

The post-emancipation free villages of the Baptist and other churches was a model that worked years ago. Perhaps it is time for us to revisit that model and apply it in new ways to the circumstances of today. In this regard, Henley Morgan's social entrepreneurship in Trench Town may be the new model for us to pursue in building community capacity and environmental security among the poor. And, in this way the church could really be said to be demonstrating what the liberation theologians have termed a preferential option for the poor in the midst of all the injustices from which they suffer. Then, together, all of us will be able to enjoy the eternal blessings of safety, security, prosperity and happiness on the land that God has entrusted to us.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen for giving me your hearing.


DeSoto, Hernando, 2000. The Mystery of Capital. Basic Books, New York.

Goldsmith, Marshall, 2007. What Got You Here Won't Get You There – How Successful People Become Even More Successful. Hyperion, New York.

Government of Jamaica (Ministry of Housing), 2008. Rapid Assessment of the Problem of Squatting in Jamaica.

Jamaica Information Service (GOJ), 2011. LAMP Providing More Jamaicans with (Land) Titles.

Land Loss Prevention Project (North Carolina), 2011. Environmental Justice.

Mbiti, John S., 1969. African Religions and Philosophy, Anchor Books, New York.

The Ecologist, 1993. Whose Common Future? - Reclaiming the Commons. Earthscan Publications, London.

The Jamaica Gleaner, 2007. Business Incubators in Kingston's Inner City - Transforming jobless residents into entrepreneurs (June 24).

The Jamaica Observer, 2006. PO Box Trench Town (July 23).

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