My fellow Jamaicans, as we celebrate the 181st anniversary of the abolition of plantation slavery, I greet you in the spirit of the freedom which emancipation brought. Even today, that freedom remains the most important possession for each of us.
Emancipation Day is always a timely reminder that the freedom we celebrate today was won by the selfless, courageous struggle waged by our ancestors for over a century before we achieved “Full Free”.
Even as we celebrate that freedom today, we know Jamaica has a far way to go in breaking the chains of economic and social inequalities that still persist and which still limits the opportunities available to many Jamaicans.
A truly better Jamaica requires that we all come together, with the passion and commitment to re-double our efforts to strike a definitive blow against inequality. That is how we will foster the conditions for progress and prosperity that benefit all, and not just a few.
To effectively address the increasing division of Jamaica as country in which there is First-Class and Second-Class citizens, we have to understand that the root of the problem is in our history. This is especially evident in the areas of education, in our health system, and in the area of land ownership.
After Emancipation those who had enslaved our forefathers and mothers still retained the political and economic power to keep them tied to the estate as laborers’. The key to this was to deny them access to land.
Those who refused to live under the oppressive conditions of the estates were constantly harassed and became liable for arrest as so-called vagrants and so called squatters. Denied legal access to land, many were forced to establish their own informal communities.
Land, and access to land, thus became the centerpiece of the struggle for economic freedom and progress.
The Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 was a pivotal effort by the newly-freed to get land and social justice. And as we all know this rebellion was put down with brutal force by the British Colonial authorities.
The Labour Rebellion of 1938 launched our people into a new phase in the fight of emancipation from mental slavery and set us on the path to the achievement of universal adult suffrage and self-government and ultimately independence.
However, despite this progress the majority of Jamaicans remained landless and as a result economically marginalized. That is why land ownership for the majority is a critical factor to be unlocked for the inclusive growth and development that all Jamaicans deserve.
This issue of land and proper management of the environment are at the heart of the current concerns in the Cockpit Country, where citizens are now resisting the possibility of mining in an area which is arguably Jamaica’s most important environmental asset. We must all stand with the residents of the Cockpit country in their fight to maintain the natural and environmental integrity of their community. The cockpit represents Jamaica’s most important water resource.
Over the decades of independence successive administrations have implemented programmes to make land available to the people for agricultural production and to ameliorate squatting. These programmes include Land titling, Land reform, the Land Bonds Law, Operation Grow, Sites and Services, Operation Pride and of course the National Housing Trust.
Yet despite this wide range of initiatives and successful implementation for the most part, an estimated 700,000 of our brothers and sisters are still called squatters in a free Jamaica.
Today, this legacy of plantation slavery is still evident in the deep divisions within the society and the gap that persists between the minority at the top and the growing number of Jamaicans that exist on the margin of society.
Until our farmers have access to the best farming lands and a title to use as collateral to secure finance, and until families have a home to nurture their children, Jamaica will never experience social stability and inclusive prosperity which is the dream of all Jamaicans.
We cannot make the progress we should with so many of our fellow Jamaicans left behind and excluded from the basic necessities of life.
One of my first initiatives as President of the People’s National Party was to establish the National Land Ownership Commission chaired by noted attorney at law, Norman Minott “to recommend radical and effective strategies, systems and mechanisms to significantly improve and facilitate legal ownership of land, and to ultimately eliminate squatting from Jamaica’s landscape”.
The report confirms that this is a very practical and doable objective and we will take these solutions across the country in a series of national consultations.
We are committed to a truly national effort to ensure that every Jamaican family will have a home and a stake in the land of their birth.
Let us recall on this Emancipation Day the fight for better education, access to land and the drive for economic growth that is at the foundation of our quest today for a better Jamaica of equality, development and justice.
I wish for you all a happy, safe and reflective Emancipation Day.
May God continue to bless you and your family, and Bless our country – Jamaica, land we love.