The Resettlement Area of Impact (RAI) outlined in the picture above.
PHILIPSBURG-Persons living near the dump on Pond Island, termed “PAPs”, short for “project-affected persons”, are now being involuntarily resettled under the Trust Fund’s Debris Management Project. In an extensive interview with The Daily Herald, National Recovery Program Bureau (NRPB) Director Claret Connor said these persons are being resettled in a humanitarian way.
NRPB has signed agreements with 138 PAPs to be relocated and reimbursed, either in kind – offered another dwelling – or in cash. PAPs are not only persons, they also are businesses. In total there are 215 individuals to be resettled.
Initially 141 PAPs were identified, but two individuals registered as PAPs have since passed away and one PAP is utilities company GEBE. As GEBE is government-owned, it was decided that no compensation agreement for losses would be signed: the government has to take responsibility for GEBE. “We are not government,” Connor said.
NRPB complies with the World Bank’s social safeguard policies. This bank’s Operational Policy on Involuntary Resettlement warrants that “no harm will come to communities within the project area.” Of the 215 individuals identified, including children, as being impacted, 96 are female and 119 are male.
Since 2018, multiple studies have identified risks to the community in the resettlement area of impact (RAI), including a potentially unstable slope of the municipal landfill representing a collapse hazard, surface and subsurface fires, air emissions from fissures, and particulate and smoke fumes exceeding occupational exposure levels.
Based on these findings, the urgent evacuation of the community within a radius of 300 feet from subsurface fires was recommended. At the same time, a zone within a radius of 1,000 feet from the dump was established as a “notification zone” where the community would be notified of fire-suppressing activities.
The need to expand the area of resettlement was identified in June 2019 due to observation of air emission levels at locations downwind or crosswind of surface or subsurface fires. Partly as a result of the fires, experts concluded in 2020 that the slope stability did not meet “industry-accepted design criteria” and continued to pose “significant life safety concerns.”
As government owns the land and there is no leasehold agreement in place, all of the residents are squatters. Based on current law, government only has a legal obligation to residents to reimburse for value of immovable property on government land.
As stated in the Resettlement Action Plan, the owner of rented dwellings, buildings and other immovable assets who does not reside in the resettlement area of impact – identified as off-site squatter landlord – will be compensated in cash for the full replacement cost. .
Patio de Yanira is one of those immovable assets hidden between mountains of scrap metal at the bottom of the south part of the dump, 300 metres behind the vehicle inspection centre on Soualiga Road.
During a series of site inspections by a reporter from this newspaper between December 2019 and July 2022, it became clear that Yanira is a Dominicano woman who claims to own a dozen shacks on the government-owned terrain adjacent to the dump. While she lives in the Dominican Republic, a henchman in St. Maarten collects rent from each person living at the site, US $350 for each shack, or two times $250 if two persons share a shack.
The shacks have mostly been occupied by undocumented Venezuelans. The group of men, ages 25-55 years, had come to St. Maarten during the months after Hurricane Irma pummelled the island on September 6, 2017, in search of coveted dollars, applying for jobs in construction. Visas were not yet mandatory for Venezuelans at the time.
Former mechanics and engineers of United States-sanctioned oil refineries in Venezuela, academics and laborers came to St. Maarten as tourists and overstayed. To save as much money as possible, they huddled together in shacks consisting of a kitchenette, bathroom and tiny space with two beds.
Hunger ruled in the community living next to the dumpsite during the two-week nationwide COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in March 2020 and months thereafter. Police sent each person who tried to leave the area back to their dwelling. Not being able to pay the rent, the tenants of Patio de Yanira saw the henchman’s threats executed and found themselves without electricity and running water.
With dirty toilets and bathrooms, leaking refrigerators and full kitchen sinks, the smell and growing plague of flies at the site became unbearable. The Patio would only be fully reconnected after Yanira confirmed that she had received all rent due.
While the majority of the people to whom this newspaper talked have since moved on, they have been replaced by a new group of transient fortune-seekers.
Asked about this specific situation, NRPB director Connor said that the resettlement aims at change for the better. “We don’t look at resettlement based on what people are doing, or have been doing, we don’t look at who is legal or illegal. What we are looking at is an area that is marked for what the World Bank calls ‘involuntary resettlement’. This means that, basically, the affected persons do not have a choice.”
The socio-economic survey and census carried out by NRPB in November 2020 and subsequent fieldwork during May and July-September 2021 focused on persons residing in the RAI. However, because project activities will impact waste-pickers who are not residing in the RAI, an additional census was conducted in October 2021.
It is stated in the Resettlement Action Plan that during this additional census the Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI informed NRPB that access to waste collection on the municipal landfill and the Irma Dump site across the road was being terminated due to safety concerns. There were several accidents and near misses that warranted closing access to the sites, VROMI said.
The Resettlement Action Plan further states that NRPB held several meetings with VROMI to communicate that these actions were in contradiction to World Bank policy. NRPB provided a proposal on access and safety protocols for waste-pickers, but VROMI did not safely reopen access to waste-pickers.
Those who derive income from waste-picking activities were impacted. NRPB identified 34 persons depending on the landfill for income, seven of whom are living outside the RAI.
NRPB offered to include the seven waste-pickers in the Resettlement Project, granting them the chance to be compensated for income lost due to the decision made by VROMI.
The Resettlement Action Plan has been developed to ensure that the resettlement process complies with the social safeguard policies of the World Bank Operational Policy, Connor explained. “All persons living in the RAI, as well as persons who derive their income from the dump, are dealt with on an individual basis. They are given two options: to be compensated in kind – offered another dwelling on a different location – or receive cash money.”
NRPB hired a property appraiser to determine the economic value of business in the shanty town that has an active informal economy. Apart from waste-pickers, there are upholsterers and several car mechanics who set up shop under a zinc roof, as well as electricians, masons, carpenters and roofers who act as independent entrepreneurs, some of them walking around with their business cards soliciting jobs.
“If we come to an agreement as to what they have, in terms of structure, machinery and materials, and the amount of money this represents, be it $25,000 or $50,000, they can choose to have this paid out in full,” Connor said.
Are you referring to licensed businesses?
Connor: “We don’t look at the situation based on whether a business is legal or illegal. This is not necessarily in line with St. Maarten policy; however, this is a resettlement project of the World Bank. The World Bank has experience with resettling people in different parts of the world. Its policy stipulates that persons do not end up in worse situations than they were in.”
The people living near the dump are part of a shadow economy. How do you determine their actual incomes and profits?
Connor: “At NRPB, we have experts who deal with these stakeholders. For privacy concerns, we do not disclose their personal situations and business information. We have individual contracts and individual agreements with every one of the impacted persons. That is as far as I can speak about it.”
What if an undocumented car mechanic wants to continue his illegal business elsewhere on the island?
Connor: “Then we will find him a suitable place.”
The Resettlement Action Plan mentions that the affected businessowner will receive in-kind and in-cash allowances to dismantle the business, transport and reinstall the movable assets such as plant, machinery, or other equipment. Support with logistical arrangements will be provided by NRPB to coordinate the dismantling, relocation and reinstallation of assets.
NRPB has been in communication with persons near the dump since 2019; their living arrangements and businesses may have changed since then.
Connor: “November 2020 was chosen as a cut-off: all assets accumulated up until that month were appraised, not other investments that were made after. We have been in contact with persons in the RAI for years, this is a long and complicated process. For those affected, this is a life transition.
“We put support programmes in place, we give them legal advice, help them manage their finances. Imagine someone making $600 to $700 a month to be reimbursed tens of thousands of dollars in cash in one go. That person may need help budgeting and saving for later.”
If people accept payment in cash, they are given a deadline for moving out?
Connor: “After we signed off and we made the payment, they have eight weeks to vacate the location. Then we will take possession of the location, we will secure it. Once we have an area that we can work in, we will begin demolition of that area.”
According to the Resettlement Action Plan, NRPB expects to pay $3,906,985 in compensation for structures in the RAI, as well as $658,147 for additional assets and $36,232 dollars for trees. Demolition works will amount to an estimated $1,000,000.
Some $2,000,000 has been reserved for buying homes and businesses for resettlement of the persons that opt for in-kind compensation. The Resettlement Action Plan mentions that due to the debris emergency, it will be necessary to relocate PAPs as soon as possible with a temporary resettlement. For this purpose, $228,000 is reserved, as well as $151,000 for a livelihood restoration program.
“These PAPs will receive allowances in cash and in-kind to cover for housing, feeding, and other necessities during this period until the permanent resettlement arrangement is in place,” the resettlement consultants concluded.
The total budget for the Resettlement Action Plan is $12,366,238. Of this, $1,500,000 has been earmarked for consultancy services, and $977,735 reserved for an audit of the resettlement, once completed.