Court awards $10M to WCB cash crop farmers

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…after Region 5 REO maliciously bulldozed farms in 2018

Region Five REO, Ovid Morrison

The High Court has awarded over $10 million relief to three cash crop farmers of Region Five (Mahaica-Berbice) in a lawsuit they had filed back in September 2018 against Regional Executive Officer (REO), Ovid Morrison, who had maliciously bulldozed their farmlands and cut down their crops.

The judgement was handed down by High Court Judge, Justice Simone Ramlall, last month.
The three claimants – Krishna Sewlall, Kristopher Sewnarine and Kaleel Jameer – had retained Attorney-at-Law Anil Nandlall to approach the court seeking over $10 million in damages for what they contended was the unlawful destruction of their property.

The farmers, along with dozens of others, are occupying land in the Tract 3 X of Block 1A and Tract Y portion of Plantation of Naarstigheid, being part of Bath, West Coast Berbice (WCB). They were granted a two-year lease for 1.4 acres in March 2000 under the Social Impact Amelioration Project (SIMAP) for large-scale farming. Upon the expiration of the two-year lease, the claimants continued to cultivate the land with the permission of the Regional Democratic Council (RDC), which owned the lands.

However, in October 2016, REO Morrison had demanded that some 50 farmers, including the three claimants, vacate the land and threatened to bulldoze their crops and forcibly eject them. The farmers complained to the Chairman of the RDC who, by letter dated March 21, 2018, instructed the REO to refrain from interfering with the farmers’ occupation of the land.

Upon the claimants’ refusal to vacate, Morrison went ahead to enter the land and bulldozed their crops and structures in April and August 2018.

During the trial held, the RDC Chairman, Vickchand Ramphal, had testified on behalf of the claimants, confirming their occupation and cultivation of the land. He further told the court that he had written the REO instructing him to desist from dispossessing the farmers or damaging their crops, and advising him that his actions were not grounded in any RDC decision.

As such, in her decision, Justice Ramlall accepted the claimants’ evidence of the history and circumstances surrounding their occupation and cultivation of the land in question.

“Given this evidence and there being none to the contrary, the defendant had no authority to evict the claimants from the land. The defendant is merely the Chief Administrative Officer of the RDC. There is no evidence that he was acting pursuant to the specific or general direction of the RDC (Section 77 (3) of the Municipal and District Councils Act (“the Act”)) neither was he acting pursuant to any power or duty conferred upon or assigned to him by Part 1 of the Sixth Schedule of the Act or any other law. He was acting ultra vires his powers and as such his interference with the claimants’ occupation of land was unlawful. The defendant is therefore personally liable to the claimants for damages for trespass,” the High Court Judge ruled.

According to Justice Ramlall, the claimants have been in occupation of, cultivating and developing the land with the RDC’s permission and their position is that of mere licensees who are entitled to remain on the land until their licence is validly terminated by the RDC.
To this end, the Judge did note, however, that the farmers acquired no proprietary rights in the land. She further ruled given that a bare licence can be withdrawn at any time by the licensor without any prescribed notice (provided that the licensee is given reasonable time to leave) it is now for the RDC to determine whether it wishes to determine the claimants’ licence.

Nevertheless, in addition to the financial relief, she granted all four orders sought by the farmers.

These include a declaration that the claimants are entitled to remain in possession and occupation of the portion of land at Plantation of Naarstigheid, Bath, WCB – with buildings and erections thereon unless and until their licence is terminated by the Mahaica-Berbice RDC.

Another declaration was granted to state that the REO’s interference with the claimants’ possession and occupation of the said land in the months of April and August 2018 constitutes trespass by him.

The third declaration states that the removal of the structures, fixtures, trees, crops and plants on the said land by the REO, his servants, representatives, officers and/or agents collectively and individually was illegal.

And finally, the Judge also granted an injunction restraining the REO by himself, his servants, representatives, officers and/or agents collectively and individually and each and every one of them from entering or remaining, occupying, farming, bulldozing the land or in any manner whatsoever interfering with the claimants’ quiet and peaceful use, occupation and enjoyment of the said land.

With regards to the relief, Justice Ramlall awarded special damages to the tune of $5,374,000 (the sum sought) to the three farmers.

In addition, they were given general damages in the nominal sum of $100,000 each for trespass along with another $200,000 in costs. (Republished from the Guyana Times)