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Government promoting food insecurity

October 18, 2003
By Raffique Shah

IT is difficult to get any government in an oil-and-gas-rich country like Trinidad and Tobago to pay serious attention to food production. Like most Middle East states that are swimming in oil, where everything, from drinking water to sliced bread, caviar to champagne are imported, governments here have paid little more than lip service to food production. Oh, successive ministers who held the agriculture portfolio would recount many measures they piloted in Parliament as testimony to their respective governments' interest in the agro-sector. But ask them to point to achievements, to statistics that would show where we have been able to lower our annual billion-dollar food import bill, and you'd draw a blank.

That's because agriculture does not pay, both for the producer and for government. Why should government bother to plough, say, $500 million to develop specific agro-enterprises, when they could easily put the same sum into energy and enjoy healthy returns on their investments in short time? Once government sees its key role as maximising revenues and minimising expenditure, hence having a healthy "bottom line" at the end of each fiscal year, then why be bothered by irrelevancies like agriculture that yield little profits and even lesser votes in elections? So the bastard child of the economy remains a pariah, however much those in office may say otherwise.

Recently a major struggle took place between members of the National Food Crop Farmers Association (NFFA) and the NHA over an acreage of land in the Curepe/St Joseph area. Some farmers had occupied the land for many years during which they produced food and root crops for the local market. They were also able to sustain their families through their meagre earnings. They were not tenants, but mere squatters. Still, they kept the land in good order and more important, produced food. I have long argued that persons who utilise the idle land for something as productive as agriculture, should not be deemed "squatters" but "producers".

But that's a moot point. What was more important in this case was the NHA offered them alternative land because the housing authority had already identified that specific area for housing. The NFFA objected to the land being used for any purpose other than agriculture. The NHA found that offensive, and eventually the farmers were driven off the land. The point that the NHA missed here is the soil type in the area that is currently being bulldozed and will soon have tonnes of concrete and asphalt poured into it is what is classified as Class I soil. Which means that it's the best soil type we have in the country, but now, because of their insensitivity to such "mundane" matters, it's forever lost to be utilised for agriculture.

Week after week in the newspapers, and many times during the week on radio, retired UWI Professor John Spence has been making a case for resuscitating agriculture and food production, with minimal responses from those in authority. They probably see him as the proverbial gadfly, or worse, a blue-ass fly that's bothersome. Then there is the UWI group of agriculturists who recently prepared a paper on possible uses for lands vacated by Caroni Limited, the main thrusts of which were highlighted in a series of articles in the Express by Andy Johnson. Essentially, people like Dr Ranjit Singh and others begged the government not to cover Class I And Class II soil types with concrete and asphalt. Amidst these voices that are visionary, some even desperate, lie a larger body of the population buried in government, in the bureaucracy, among those engaged in politicking, and in the general public, that could not give two hoots about what happens to agriculture and food production. We'll always have the hard currency to purchase our needs from abroad—so the thinking goes.

that is a dangerous, myopic path to proceed on. Let's disabuse our minds of the propaganda that we can become a self-sufficient nation with respect to food production. We do not have the land mass, and worse, the soil types, that will put us in the enviable position. Any aim towards self-sufficiency will have to be a Caricom initiative that includes at least Cuba and Venezuela if not all the islands and countries in the Caribbean Basin. I shan't go into details here. I shall say only that with huge tracts of arable lands, countries like Guyana, Venezuela and Cuba need only the capital and expertise to move towards becoming the food basket of the region, with smaller countries that have specialist-products potential acting like satellites around these larger islands. And this country, with its generous oil and gas resources, when combined with Venezuela, could be the industrial hubs around which other profitable enterprises can be structured.

But I am going well ahead of the immediate problem. Already, for those who may be ignorant to the fact, we have lost a substantial part of our Class I soil type to housing and industries. I am referring to the lands between the foothills of the Northern Range and just south of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway. Many people do not seem to understand that in Caroni's 70,000-plus acres of land, much of it consists of poor soil types that can be used only for growing sugar cane or other grasses. Only small portions have agricultural value—and these are what are being earmarked for housing and industries. If the government is allowed to proceed along this course, soon, in this 2000-square-miles of land in which we live, we shall soon have little on which we can plant anything.

Which is why government must be made to understand our plight, and to act to save whatever Class I and Class II soils we have left. People need to understand that by simply farming out Caroni's lands to ex-sugar workers or anyone else interested in agriculture, we might be creating more problems than offering solutions. In fact, it may well turn out that on most of these lands we shall have no choice but to continue with sugar cane, the only difference being that the end products will not be sugar as we know it.

It is critical that at this stage, though, we halt the land haemorrhaging. Government must ensure that agencies like the NHA and PIDCOTT and private investors in the housing sectors are not given, or be allowed to use, our best agricultural lands for other purposes. There are many areas in which we can site houses or industries. But there is a highly-shrunk acreage in which we can grow some food to feed the nation.

Pt I | Pt II | Pt III