Farmers chop down 300 acres of forest reserve

Pineap­ple farm­ers who have chopped down more than 300 acres of for­est re­serve in Table­land are ex­pect­ed to be charged by the po­lice fol­low­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions, Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Clarence Ramb­harat con­firmed yes­ter­day.

Ramb­harat him­self has al­so launched a probe in­to “the com­plete fail­ure of the Forestry Di­vi­sion to com­bat squat­ting in the for­est re­serves.”

In an in­ter­view with the T&T Guardian, Ramb­harat said he was ap­palled at the for­est de­struc­tion.

“I am lead­ing the ef­fort to iden­ti­fy rogue farm­ers and re­quest that ac­tion be tak­en, in­clud­ing pros­e­cu­tion,” Ramb­harat added.

Say­ing the Forestry Di­vi­sion, Com­mis­sion­er of State Lands and po­lice were deal­ing with this mat­ter, Ramb­harat said the of­fences in­clude tres­pass­ing and de­struc­tion of trees.

“Apart from pros­e­cut­ing the of­fend­ers, I have re­quest­ed an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Con­ser­va­tor of Forests as to whether these were re­port­ed by For­est Of­fi­cers who are sup­posed to mon­i­tor squat­ting in for­est re­serves,” Ramb­harat said.

Asked why the de­struc­tion of the for­est trees was not re­port­ed by the Forestry of­fi­cials be­fore, Ramb­harat said: “Forestry Di­vi­sion has been deal­ing with these is­sues in Table­land for a long time. But with the move­ment of of­fi­cers, the mon­i­tor­ing clear­ly slacked off.”

On who was re­spon­si­ble for the de­struc­tion, Ramb­harat said: “The Forestry Di­vi­sion has iden­ti­fied a few rogue farm­ers. I can­not re­veal their iden­ti­ties ex­cept to say they are farm­ing in the for­est re­serves in Table­land—Glod Road and War­well.”

Ramb­harat said in the past, forestry of­fi­cers could have or­dered of­fend­ers to pay com­pen­sa­tion to avoid pros­e­cu­tion.

“For­est of­fi­cers, like game war­dens, can com­pound of­fences—which means that they can agree with of­fend­ers to pay com­pen­sa­tion and avoid pros­e­cu­tion. This may be an area of abuse and I have act­ed un­der the Forests Act and banned the set­tle­ment of these of­fences with­out the min­is­ter’s ap­proval,” Ramb­harat said.

He added, “Sec­tion 21 of the Forests Act gives the min­is­ter that au­thor­i­ty.

“A cou­ple of years ago I did the same thing for game war­dens, where they can­not set­tle mat­ters with­out my writ­ten ap­proval. That is why more mat­ters are go­ing to the po­lice and the court.”

Asked whether he planned to pi­o­neer leg­isla­tive changes to deal with the is­sue, he said: “The leg­is­la­tion is not per­fect but it is ad­e­quate enough to give law en­force­ment of­fi­cers the pow­er to charge of­fend­ers. My mes­sage is that I am per­son­al­ly lead­ing the ef­fort to iden­ti­fy rogue farm­ers and re­quest that ac­tion be tak­en, in­clud­ing pros­e­cu­tion.”

Con­tact­ed for com­ment on the is­sue, ex­ec­u­tive mem­ber of the Table­land Pineap­ple Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion Ralph Ram­per­sad said he did not know whether pineap­ple farm­ing was tak­ing place on State or pri­vate lands.

“I know there is a lot of cul­ti­va­tion tak­ing place in Glod Road but I can­not say whether it is State land or pri­vate lands. I am not sur­prised. A lot of peo­ple squat on State land and on­ly when it is re­port­ed the min­istry takes ac­tion.”

Ram­per­sad said he was in sup­port of the min­istry’s crack­down on the rogue farm­ers.

He added: “I am not sub­scrib­ing to any­thing il­le­gal. A lot of peo­ple squat. De­struc­tion of the forests has a lot of im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment and the wa­ter­sheds. It is def­i­nite­ly some­thing that the State Lands Di­vi­sions should in­ves­ti­gate.

Reporter: Radhica De Silva

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