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