Food and Fuel Forum
43 Fifth St., Barataria, Trinidad and Tobago
January 23, 2003
The handing over of prime Caroni lands to selected companies certainly raises cause for concern about the government’s agricultural policy and who benefits from it.
Small farmers all over the country have been fighting for thirty, forty and even fifty years for security of tenure. It is the most crucial issue facing farmers today and is the main obstacle in farmers’ effort to produce abundant food for the nation.
How come, then, four companies could be facilitated so quickly after they applied for licenses to set up mega farms? What about regularising farmers in areas like Garden Village, Felicity, Couva, Biche, Plum Mitan, Bois Bande Village, Bamboo and so many areas in the East, West , North, South and Tobago? There seems to be a class bias at work here!
The great grab for former Caroni lands is on. It is clear that those who work the land and have a proven track record of supplying the nation with food are being shoved aside as the government, as it usually does, rushes to fix up the capitalists in their quest to maximise profits even if it means gouging out the eyes of the population with high prices.
Blue Waters and PCS Nitrogen got into the act early. Now we have among others: Caribbean Chemicals owned by the Pires family; SuperMix Feeds which already dominates the poultry sector and pays factory workers less than the minimum wage and refuses to deal with the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE) even though the union won recognition legally. Food and Fuel Forum understands that there are 11 more commercial farms to be established.
What is mind blowing is that the government has decided to adopt the agribusiness, mega farm model that is responsible for the high prices and artificial shortages that swept the international food market last year. This model sees food as just another commodity to be speculated on, the supply of which can be manipulated to make super profits. It sidelines small farmers who have developed generations of expertise on the land.
These agri businessmen will enjoy the infrastructure that Caroni (meaning the taxpayers) put in over the years (electricity, access roads, drainage) while farmers bawl every year when they lose their crops to flooding and are not compensated. It seems some are more equal than others in this country!
Imagine $98 million were spent on Chaguaramas mega farm and PCS mega farm! If small farmers had access to that kind of funding there would be a food boom in this country. These agri businessmen seem to be going into direct competition with small farmers when the real challenge should be import substitution and the application of research and technology to cultivating legumes – split peas, channa, lentils, nuts, red beans – and crops like potatoes, carrots and onions. While the mega farms compete with small farmers in vegetable and traditional root crop production the food importers make a killing. When vegetable prices fall, it isn’t because of government policy, it is because the twenty thousand farmers are resilient and they always bounce back and take another crack at feeding the nation.
The class bias and discrimination at the heart of the government agricultural policy is clear. It has nothing to do with feeding the nation. It is really a land grab on the part of the capitalists supported by their agents in the government. How else could a character like Rao have been given control over 70,000 acres of former Caroni lands when by law the EMBDC controlled only 2,000 acres while the rest fell under the control of the Commissioner of Lands. Yet Rao ran amok, confronted farmers, bulldozed lands and houses and generally disrupted the feeding of the nation.
The agri businessmen had their licenses speedily processed; the 7,800 former Caroni two acre farmers went through and are still going through red tape torture for years in a bid to get control over their land. The mega farms inherited areas set aside especially for them like Picton, Edinburgh, Jerningham and Caroni. The two acre farmers inherited a nightmare. According to a study done by Persad, Rampersad and Wilson 67% of the land suffered from poor drainage; 88% suffered from inadequate irrigation facilities; 57% displayed high soil acidity with pH less than 4.5, mainly in the North and Central. These lands have low levels of plant nutrients. Before the government proceeded to distribute lands, they should have instituted a soil amelioration programme through heavy lime application to improve the pH and the application of phosphate and organic matter. In the South much of the lands suffer from erosion and slippage; 76% of the land displays low nutrient availability; 94% of the lands needed clearing and levelling.
These farmers have to engage in rain-fed agriculture, yet the dry season is the best season for vegetable and food crop production: higher photosynthesis, less pest and disease problems. The emphasis therefore should have been on solving irrigation challenges. But it was all a big sham.
The two acre farm scheme was no land reform; it was just a smokescreen to cover up the great land grab that is underway. What we are witnessing is the wholesale privatisation of land to the capitalists and their conglomerates and transnational corporations. Remember, according to the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) the government signed with the European Community, they have to treat European companies as if they were local companies. The future of small food crop producers is under threat. If the government is allowed to get away with this looting of the national patrimony then the food crop farming sector would be dead within ten years.
The Food and Fuel Forum urges small farmers to organise themselves to engage in direct, militant action to force the government to implement the $200 per hectare land rent. The Food and Fuel Forum urges small farmers to fight for an agriculture policy that puts the small farmer at the centre of the process by ensuring that the question of security of tenure is dealt with once and for all.
The policy must involve a food security programme based on reducing the costs of agricultural inputs (seeds, fertiliser, equipment etc.); guaranteeing decent prices to farmers, creating a system of agriculture intelligence, developing a network of access roads, instituting appropriate irrigation systems, land preparation and maintenance, proper extension services, re-activating research facilities and programmes involving the development of seed banks, plant plasma research etc.
The agribusiness firms are organised and are politically powerful. If small farmers are to survive they must also organise themselves and move to protect and secure their interests by putting pressure on the government. The time has passed for asking the government please. It is now a question of survival. What is needed is sustained, militant action to defend livelihoods and to salvage the future of the food crop sector.