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Raffique Shah


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Local food shortage no fluke

November 27, 2005
By Raffique Shah

ONCE more, possibly for the umpteenth year, higher-than-average rainfall in November has resulted in extensive flooding, and what now seems to be its corollary, a shortage of local agricultural produce, hence higher food prices. Ironically, as the food-bearing Caroni Basin was inundated and crops destroyed, thousands of acres of former sugar cane lands lay dry and idle. Yet no one asks why the food baskets of the nation are "strategically" located in flood-prone areas, why those farmers continue to plant knowing the flood-risk is very high.

If flooding were an occasional occurrence, then one could excuse their folly. But it's not. And neither government nor the farmers have come up with solutions to a problem that has reduced us to a nation that engages in agriculture-by-vaps. Because even as we cry out loud over the high prices of foodstuff, there are tens of thousands of acres of land lying idle, lands that are far removed from flooding, lands on which we can grow so much food and root crops, as well as rear livestock.

This has always been the case, but never more so than since thousands of acres of sugar cane have been taken out of production. One just has to drive along the nation's main roads in Central and South Trinidad to see evidence of what I can only dub "slackness". For miles, sometimes as far as the eye can see, there are abandoned sugar cane fields that have been overtaken by grass. I have not touched on a similar acreage that belongs to Petrotrin, on which no economic activity takes place save drilling for oil here and there. Nor have I considered even more lands, this time huge blocks that fall directly under the State, lying idle. Except for insensitive slash-and-burn "farmers", and others who are bold-faced enough to simply squat on Caroni or State lands, either to build shacks or plant crops, thousands who are willing to give us some food-price stability are denied legal access to such lands.

Had the Government or its food-oriented agencies allowed those who wanted to grow short crops to engage in such activities, instead of a shortage of vital vegetables for Christmas, we might have had a glut. The latter is also unacceptable: there is an urgent need to rationalise our food production, to go downstream into processing and exporting what excess we have, thus maintaining reasonable prices for consumers and good returns for producers. Instead, what do we have?

The close-to-death Caroni (1975) Limited, whose extended funeral rites are being presided over by men who don't know their eddoes-from-figs, moving in a "dread" manner to evict the few people who have continued cultivating the idle lands-at the latter's expense, I need add, not Caroni's, not the Government's. And to add insult to injury, we have a team of Government Ministers-the Inter-Ministerial Committee I think it's called-supporting this ass-in-the-manger approach to food production. Their credo seems to be let the lands lie idle, let the people starve or pay through their noses for produce, and, as Marie Antoinette is alleged to have said during the French Revolution, "Let them eat cake!"

I am not writing fiction here, I am writing facts. If only the Government had directed the dunces at Caroni to free up some lands for short crops, on the strict understanding that the lands would be vacated when they are required for other purposes, this country would have had a glut of produce, not a shortage. There are hundreds of farmers who would willingly invest in such activities, taking all the risks, and asking of the Government nothing more than the opportunity to plant some crops. Instead of these people being encouraged to be productive members of the society, they are being denied the opportunity, and those who took the Government's word on agriculture as gospel are, instead, being forced to eat the bread the Devil kneads.

As for the hundreds of acres of farmlands that suffer from floods on an annual basis, it is clear there is need for close examination of what their future options are. Flooding in the Caroni Basin, as well as in districts like Barrackpore and Penal, has been with us for as long as anyone can remember.

Work on the Caroni River is ongoing, but an elevated south bank is not the solution. One breach in that "levee" and huge volumes of water rush into housing communities and agricultural holdings. If we look at what happened in New Orleans recently, and we understand the effects of climate-changes occasioned by global warming, we'd know that the ravages of nature have only just begun.

We therefore have to re-think our food production, our housing settlements, even our lifestyles, to meet the challenges posed by forces we cannot control. And if we want to enjoy any measure of food security and price stability, we shall also have to get rid of the unthinking, insensitive elements in government and its agencies who have us where we are today.