Crown land can be defined as public land. It is a territorial area owned by the state (government) by which citizens have access and rights to use this land.
In The Bahamas, the issues surrounding Crown land can be summarized into two parts: ownership and management. This segment will address these issues in an attempt to explore the political, social and legislative sides of this matter. It will also provide an insight into digital solutions and technology-driven initiatives that can help to resolve some of these issues.
Crown land is managed by the Department of Land and Surveys in The Bahamas. However, successive governments have failed to address an estimated 30,000 plus applications for Bahamians requesting the use of Crown land. This speaks to the poor management and lack of attention being provided to this process, which hinders Bahamians from doing business and building homes in their own country. A properly managed system would be beneficial to spur economic growth for The Bahamas – especially those living on Family Islands – since the cost of doing business is already higher when having to account for transportation costs, utilities and shipping supplies.
In 2018, the current government announced that once enacted, the Economic Empowerment Zones Bill (2018) would help to establish an inventory of Crown land throughout The Bahamas in a bid to make low-cost housing available. While this appears to be progressive, attempts to render problems facing Crown land distribution and ownership, it does not take away from the fact that Bahamians have not been a priority when it comes to Crown land reform.
It is often a cry for many locals to get approval for Crown land applications and land registration despite it being 2019. Obtaining a title search is also a tedious process and the process does not allow for full transparency. In fact, The Bahamas has ranked extremely low (167 out of 190 countries) on the land registry process in 2018. This is one of the lowest rankings and it speaks to the need to tighten up the land registration process.
With work clearly to be done, one of the solutions brought to the attention of the public and government is blockchain – a technology system that can be programmed to track anything of value such as records, financial data and land titles. It is a non-destructive way to record data and allows for transparency to be present because changes are always recorded rather than destroyed or altered. It allows for each step of the process to be recorded so that there is no guessing on who the land belongs to or how it was obtained. It also cuts out the need for any intermediaries that could either be costly or time consuming. Since blockchain technology allows us to trust the data being used, it does not require someone to vet a document, which can take years in The Bahamas. Instead, it can be done the same day and limits factors of consideration such as risk and exposure. Another way that blockchain can help is by allowing for this data to be shared to the public. It would still be a good idea, however, to have audited annual reports on how Crown land applications/approvals and land registration progress.
Crown land amounts to approximately 70 percent of all land in The Bahamas, but the ratio in terms of Bahamian versus foreign ownership is unclear. The issues surrounding ownership and Crown land is quite simple. It is fair to say that Bahamians have always been second best to foreign counterparts when obtaining the territorial area. In an article, attorney Alfred Sears once pointed out that, “Significant Crown grants, long Crown leases and government conveyances and leases by the Hotel Corporation of The Bahamas and the treasurer were made to Baha Mar, Baker’s Bay in Abaco, MSC in Ocean Cay port and resort, Resorts World/Bimini Bay, Royal Caribbean seabed lease on Berry Island, Sandals Royal Bahamian in Nassau, Sandals Emerald Bay in Exuma and Breezes in Cable Beach and numerous islands and cays in the Exumas and Abacos.”
In 2018, Oban Energies, a company who proposed to build a $5.5 billion oil refinery and storage facility in East End, Grand Bahama, was expected to lease 690 acres of Crown land. Yet, there are thousands of applications from Bahamians that have yet to be processed. This is when it becomes obvious that Bahamians are not priority. While foreign direct investments are important to economic growth, allowing Bahamians to act as entrepreneurs, home owners, and business owners is equally important.
Earlier this year, the prime minister announced that Family Islanders who have been leasing Crown land from the government would be given the properties they are leasing. This would include those who were impacted by the failed launch of the Bahamas Agricultural Research and Training Development (BARTAD) project. The failure of this project led to leaving families living on large plots of land that they did not own. It is important that governments assess these sort of investments/projects especially when it comes to leasing Crown land to avoid instances such as this.
Quieting Titles Act: abolish or stay?
A quiet title establishes who owns a property; therefore, the Quieting Titles Act outlines the criteria to make this decision. The court provides a judgment on who owns the property which is the final decision. Therefore, a quiet title “quiets” any questions or doubts surrounding who is the true owner of the property. The need to bring matters of ownership to the court arises when there is a dispute over ownership or when there is no probate or deed to ensure that the property is owned by the person claiming to own the land. In The Bahamas, there are many instances where persons who claim generational property have lost rights because there were no steps taken to transfer title. The Privy Council, the highest court in the Bahamian judicial system, has reiterated concerns about the Bahamas’ Quieting Titles Act for quite some time. In October 2018, the Privy Council’s recent ruling was reported over a title for a plot of land on Eleuthera between Eleuthera Properties Limited and a group who claims ownership based on their lineage to the slaves. “All that can be said is that, however successful the machinery of the act has been, and may yet be, in quieting title to other parts of The Bahamas, it has not proved to be an effective vehicle for that purpose in relation to the property (in question),” the Privy Council’s ruling states. This case provides an understanding as to how damaging the Quieting Titles Act can be especially in those instances where families who are not able to fight against multinational corporations that seek to take over a piece of land.
Essentially, the act does not favor the interest of the Bahamian people. It was reported that Centreville MP Reece Chipman said he intends to call for a select committee to investigate all matters relevant to the Quieting Titles Act. Chipman explained that the committee would be intended to “investigate” all matters relative to the act since 1959. The take out from the committee would be to see if the act should be abolished or amended to be more beneficial to Bahamians.
In closing, there is a disparity in the issuance of Crown land to Bahamians versus foreigners in terms of ownership and management. It raises the question, why have past governments been so opposed to getting this process fixed? Is it a matter of technicalities or is it because they simply don’t want the average Bahamian to be in possession of this land?
The agenda to achieve economic growth seems to be fitting for foreign direct investors but not for Bahamians who are faced with the high cost of living in The Bahamas. When the average household income for a Bahamian is $25,000 to $30,000, it becomes difficult to rent or take out a mortgage especially on the Family Islands.
Also, mega projects that are on Crown land can lead to a hike in real estate in surrounding areas, making it more difficult for Bahamians to open businesses or buy homes. In addition, Crown land that was awarded based on development to groups like the I-Group in Mayaguana and Ginn in Grand Bahama should be returned to the Crown land repository because of their failure to make good on their agreement to develop the Crown land awarded for their development. There are examples like the I-Group and Ginn all over The Bahamas and there needs to be a reversal of this failed approach to foreign direct investment in The Bahamas.
We have to start leasing land in the country rather than unconditionally giving it away, especially when foreign direct investments have not complied with the heads of agreement. Bahamians and foreign direct investors should not be allowed to retain Crown land when contractual agreements have not been met. All of these issues combined, proves to be a strong case for this issue to be resolved sooner than later.
• Roderick A. Simms II is an advocate for sustainable Family Islands growth and development. Email: RASII@ME.com.