Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister yesterday dismissed calls from United Nations (UN) human rights experts to halt the demolition of The Farm shantytown on Abaco, and said plans are in place to begin a similar exercise on New Providence “very soon”.
In a statement issued on Friday, the UN called on the government to halt further demolitions in The Farm shantytown on Abaco, arguing that the “forced evictions and demolitions” would force residents, who are primarily Haitian migrants, into “homelessness and extreme poverty”.
But Bannister said the demolition exercise is in the best interest of Bahamians and said that without action, public health issues could arise.
“When I saw that, there were two questions I asked myself,” he told reporters outside Cabinet.
“The first question is, ‘What is in the best interest of the Bahamian people whose interests I am supposed to represent?’
“And then the other question is, ‘What are the consequences of me not doing my job?’
“The consequences of me not doing my job is that we could have a spread of E.coli in Abaco. Innocent people’s water in Abaco might be contaminated and people could be sick. We could have the constant widespread anomie in our country where people decide that they’re going to go on other people’s land and take it over.
“And I can tell you that complaints in New Providence and elsewhere now have increased. I have a number of complaints from Bahamians who are saying that when they go to their property now, they are meeting shanty houses. We are going to have to conduct an exercise in New Providence because of that very soon.”
Bannister said that otherwise, The Bahamas could become “like Haiti”.
“It has come to a point where we have to decide whether we are going to have a society like The Bahamas or if we are going to have a society like Haiti, and if any of you have been to Haiti, you would see what happens there – dirt, garbage, shanty houses all over the place,” he said.
“We have to decide if that’s what we want. And if we want that, then we have to decide that we are going to take a stance in the interest of our country. So, I am just carrying out my job based on The Bahamas.
“If those folks want to make a statement about The Bahamas, then I think as a country, as we are deporting people, if they want them to come to their neighborhood and put a shantytown in their neighborhood, that’s what you should ask them.
“How would they feel if in their neighborhood there were a shantytown with feces going in the groundwater, with potential for people to get sick, with all the other challenges where you go on your land and somebody is already there putting up a shanty house.
“I’d like you to ask them these questions when they raise these issues about The Bahamas because we are just trying to live with law and order and we are just trying to protect the health and well-being of Bahamians.”
In the ongoing rebuilding of Abaco in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, the issue of shantytowns has been a particularly contentious one, with many residents raising concern over the swiftness with which new illegal structures are being erected.
Leading up to the storm, two of the largest known shantytowns in The Bahamas occupied prime property in Marsh Harbour, the island’s capital.
In 2018, the Minnis administration announced plans to demolish shantytowns throughout the country, giving residents of most shantytowns on New Providence until August 10, 2018, to leave before demolition.
Residents in Abaco shantytowns were given until the end of July 2019 to leave.
However, in August 2018, Supreme Court Justice Cheryl Grant-Thompson granted an injunction preventing the demolition of shantytowns.
But when Dorian made landfall in the Abacos in September 2019, the shantytowns were some of the worst-hit communities – many of them virtually wiped out by the strong winds and storm surge.
Much of what remained of the communities was bulldozed by the government in the post-hurricane cleanup process.
Of the major shantytowns on Abaco, only The Farm survived; because some buildings were still standing and people were still living in the community in the aftermath of Dorian, it was protected by the injunction.
The government is seeking to have that injunction lifted in an ongoing Supreme Court hearing.
In the meantime, Bannister has maintained that the only buildings that will remain untouched in the government’s planned demolition of the Abaco community are those that were erected prior to Dorian.