Commoners in the Harbour Island commonage district are hoping to get commonage rules and parts of the Commonage Act changed, but Attorney General Carl Bethel told Guardian Business that any changes that group wants will have to be widely consulted on with commoners throughout The Bahamas.
North Eleuthera commoner and Harbour Island Commonage Committee Assistant Treasurer Ben Simmons said that the attorney general’s office has received his committee’s proposed changes to the Commonage Act and commonage rules, which he said have been ratified by Harbour Island commoners.
Bethel said those requests have not come across his desk as yet.
But Simmons contended that if the government wants to move forward with its proposed changes to the North Eleuthera Airport, it will have to make changes to the Commonage Act and ratify the Harbour Island Commonage Committee’s rules changes in order to use that land.
Bethel said the government has not looked at changing commonage law in a vacuum and stressed that if changes should be made, all commoners across The Bahamas will have to be involved.
“Any changes in commonage rules will have to be widely consulted on with commoners throughout this country,” he said.
“Not everyone may agree with one or two who have a vested interest in doing something.
“This is part of the problem, you see, because commonage is almost a sacred thing with many Bahamians and you tie into that issue about generation land and ancestral claims, which are not well-founded in law.”
Bethel explained that the attorney general’s office will look into any changes that come to it, but he said he has not yet seen anything personally.
Simmons, who is the owner of a North Eleuthera hotel called The Other Side, on commonage land, has been pushing for the Commonage Act to speak specifically to commonage land that is being used for commercial activity.
According to Simmons, the committee has ratified its own changes to commonage statutes that would allow for those kinds of activities to take place. He said there are three layers of commonage law that allow the committee to make changes to the way commonage land is used.
He said in a presentation he made recently that the commonage laws and rules are outdated and do not enable commoners “to navigate or benefit fully in the current legal and commercial environment”.
In Simmons’ presentation, he pointed out that in regards to the 1842 grant purchased directly from the Crown, the first of the three levels, “allows full ownership rights to descendants of grantees of the land, including the exclusive right to profit, use and cultivate by the grantees; stipulates that no part of the land be alienated from whole; and requires that those able to use the land be domiciled in the Parish of St John”.
The second, the 1896 Commonage Act, “was established to provide a regulatory system for the more beneficial use of lands held in common; protects the rights of commoners by forbidding any non-commoner to hold interest in the land; allows commoners to make rules that allow for more beneficial use of the land; and requires the minister to approve any subsidiary rules”.
And the third, the 1938 subsidiary legislation, “provides the legal framework to accommodate commonage rules; states that no non-commoner can work in the land; and is currently outdated and does not enable the commonage to navigate or benefit fully in the current legal and commercial environment”.