Agrarian Atrocity

By Raffique Shah
April 30, 2011

Raffique ShahWHEN one sees the insensitivity—one might even say insanity—of persons who authorised and executed the destruction of food and root crops on three parcels of state land, one wonders what the hell is going on in this country. Successive governments, the incumbents included, have proclaimed their intent to make food production a priority. Yet, they have all committed agrarian atrocities, most times citing “progress” as an excuse. The price of progress is indeed very high.

There is something sinister about what happened last weekend. The HDC, or whoever issued the order for the lands to be bulldozed, chose the Easter long-weekend to crucify farmers. Why not on normal working days? Suspicious. The claim that the farmers did not have valid leases for the lands they planted is a moot one. Most farmers’ 30-year leases on state lands, in districts like Carlsen Field and Waller Field, expired about ten years ago. The office of the Commissioner of State Lands is yet to renew these leases, leaving second-generation farmers in legal limbo.

Indeed, based on my personal experience, I have long declared that office a morgue where corpses come alive only for destructive purposes. So they could awaken from their netherworld to issue orders to evict people who produce food. But ask them to pursue legitimate activities like lease renewals or process applications for state lands, and they fall into slumber like “jumbies”. Hundreds of people who are eager to get into food production on idle state lands are reduced to squatting or abandoning their projects. Yet, illegal quarrying on state lands continues apace.

The CEO of the HDC, Jearlean John, claims that she and the state corporation she leads acted within the law. However, Ms John knows that the law can be a damn ass at times. This was clearly case here. John’s field officers must have noted that there were bearing crops in all three fields targeted for destruction. So even though the HDC had the authority to enter the lands, human kindness, not to add common sense, should have dictated that the agency wait for a few weeks until the farmers harvested their produce.

Clearly, the person who gave the final order was devoid of such sense or humaneness. But this display of state-stupidity stretches beyond the three fields where crops were destroyed. It touches on government’s land use policy, or lack thereof. Those of us who have brayed in the wilderness for decades about securing our best soil-types for food production know that lands along the foothills of the Northern Range, and generally along the East-West corridor, best suited for agricultural purposes.

Many people may not know that the major “food basket” this country once boasted of stretched from Barataria (around the overpass) through Aranjuez, Bamboo, Valsayn (yes, Valsayn!), St Augustine and Pasea, all the way to Maloney, Sangre Grande, Valencia and surrounding districts.

The Diego Martin Valley and parts of Chaguaramas are also blessed with fertile soils. In contrast, much of the lands in Central and South-Central Trinidad is clay, hence the thriving sugar cane fields. Grass grows well on clay, and cane is a grass.

Because of the absence of a land use policy, governments have allowed most of the country’s once-productive land mass to be covered with concrete and asphalt. True, housing development was bound to claim some of our more productive lands. No one is arguing against progress, against housing, against development. But there comes a point when the authorities must call halt to productive soil-types being used for purposes other than agriculture.

We have more than adequate low-grade lands on which we can erect houses, factories, businesses and so on. We cannot cry over fertile lands that are already lost to concrete and asphalt. But we can save what is left, secure it for growing food. Returning to the wanton destruction of farmers’ crops at D’Abadie, Felicity and Cunupia, Ms John said these parcels of land were earmarked for housing since 2008. I am sure they were…I have no reason to doubt her.

But if we determine today that in the face of a global food crisis we must secure our productive lands, why can’t we change that allocation? Can we not shift housing to Central and South Trinidad where there are huge tracts of former sugar cane lands suitable for such projects? That is what good governments do. It is also the kind of advice good technocrats and managers give to their line ministers.

The government, of course, has the ultimate responsibility in matters of this nature. These are policy decisions that we do not leave to bureaucrats and technocrats.

A few weeks ago, Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath said that farmers who have occupied and cultivated state lands over a period would not face eviction. He hinted that the state lands agency mentioned above was tardy, if not outright delinquent, in facilitating land tenure in the agricultural sector.

In other words, Bharath was saying all the right things. Yet, another agency that falls under his colleague Roodal Moonilal seemed bent on embarrassing him. Indeed, Minister Moonilal knew about the HDC’s plan to bulldoze farmers and their produce off the lands. But he failed to exercise discretion or extend compassion to those who till the soil.

It was comforting to see and hear the Prime Minister, Minister McLeod, Senator Abdulah, the COP and others in government condemn the HDC’s action. Let us never have a repeat of the agrarian atrocity that occurred last weekend.

5 thoughts on “Agrarian Atrocity”

  1. Yes farmers, start feeding the nation

    Express Editorial
    April 30, 2011 –

    Although they got widespread public sympathy at the beginning of last week, the intransigent and self-centred attitude of farmers may quickly lose them public support if they persist in their unreasonable demands.

    Citizens were shocked last Monday as bulldozers despatched by the Housing Development Corporation levelled crops planted on 40 acres of land at D’Abadie. The following day, the HDC, seemingly blind or indifferent to public outrage, continued its exercise at Chaguanas in preparation for building houses on cultivated land which some farmers depended on for their livelihood.

    It turned out, however, that these farmers were squatting on the land which they had known for several years were earmarked for housing construction. They had received several notices from the HDC which they had ignored, continuing to plant and reap. At the same time, the HDC timed its exercise badly, deciding to clear the land mere weeks before the farmers would have harvested their bodi and pumpkin. That provided a Leviathan image the Corporation could have done without, necessitating quick public relations fixing by the Government, with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar sending instructions from Brazil for all bulldozing to be stopped.

    When Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal and Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath finally made public statements, however, they were fair but firm. The areas had been earmarked for housing, and that policy would continue. However, the farmers would be compensated for their loss of crops, and provided with alternative sites for cultivation. But Mr Bharath has now made what seems to be a volte-face, and is claiming the farmers have legitimate grouses.

    That may be so in a general sense, but, in this particular case, these few farmers are insisting they be given the same land they have been illegally cultivating for the past few years. The fact that they are squatting, and the fact that they have been served legal notices to vacate the State’s property, makes no difference to them. They have touted the sympathy-grabbing line that they are “feeding the nation”, as though they are engaged in a charitable enterprise instead of a business, and even made bold to call for the resignation of Mr Moonilal.

    Thus far, except for Mr Bharath, the Government appears to be standing firm. In refusing to kowtow to what is, after all, their core constituency, the People’s Partnership administration is displaying what citizens are continually demanding: good governance. The farmers are relying on partisan politics to play in their favour, but no government can succumb to blackmail and hope to govern effectively.

    The farmers have been offered a fair deal. They should take it, stop their shouting, and start feeding the nation they claim to care so much about.

  2. Jearlean John: Inflated claims for crops bulldozed
    Farmers’ are using the support of the public and persons who do not have the facts to make inflated claims for crops destroyed when the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) bulldozed lands on Easter Sunday, says HDC’s managing director Jearlean John.

    ‘PP faces tough choices’
    Acting prime minister Winston Dookeran says the Government is making choices for the development of the country’s future and sometimes the choices will be at odds with each other as in the ongoing housing versus agriculture debate.

    Dookeran downplays farmers’ protest

    Dookeran: Only conflict will arise during change
    ACTING Prime Minister, Finance Minister Winston Dookeran yesterday refused to get involved in the squabble between farmers and the Housing Development Corporation, saying only “conflict” will arise during the process of change.

    Lopinot farmers protest

    Expect to be back on lands in next two days
    LOPINOT farmers yesterday staged a peaceful demonstration outside the constituency office of Member of Parliament for Lopinot/Bon Air West, Dr Lincoln Douglas, accusing him of not seeking their interests.

    ‘Best agriculture lands go to housing’
    SOME of the country’s best agricultural lands have gone and continues to go to housing, former Independent Senator and agriculturalist Professor John Spence has said.

    Land-grabbing farmers strike again
    Land grabbing farmers have struck again, this time targeting Fairfield Village, Broomage Estate in Princes Town.

  3. ‘Best agriculture lands go to housing’

    As long as I can remember, and I am sixty-five (65) years old, Government housing is always handled in a ‘convoluted’ manner.
    The modus operandi has been the same over the years.
    Some of these units remain in an uncompleted state for a number of years, unoccupied, guards are placed for a certain period in some areas, and then the units become vandalized and eventually, after a lot of posturing, are given out under questionable circumstances to members of the public.
    Just thinking about the shenanigans is giving me a nervous stomach.
    When will we exhibit better judgement? I am totally fed-up. This shows a certain level of ‘retardation’ with our leaders and those who choose to emulate their behaviour.
    Farmers and those of us who have faced the challenge and tried our hand at cultivating a small “kitchen garden” would know there are lands which can be classified as “arable”. It is quite evident that not everyone is a ‘farmer’ and therefore not everyone is aware that cultivating crops is not as easy as it seems.
    I have been a female office employee for approximately thirty-five (35) years of my adult life. When I retired I decided to try a little kitchen gardening, comprising of simple produce like lettuce, tomatoes, patchoi, ochroes cabbage and celery. Inasmuch as I live in an area which was previously ‘cane’ lands, I had to purchase top soil, manure, fertilizers, pesticides etc. and was quite exhausted after a couple of seasons. The area is now covered with “natural seasonings, e.g. Spanish time, and banyana.I hope I can summon enough enthusiasm and strength to have a go at it again sometime before the official “rainy season”. As the saying goes, “it ent easy nuh”
    Now take note, those were but a few vegetable items and seasonings; how many of us can devote time and patience to cultivate fresh produce from within our ‘backyard’ gardens in large quantities enabling us to feed our family all year long?
    My take on the matter is that Government should get serious and assign land for general agriculture (and not a mega farm of just cucumbers and cassava), hire suitably qualified farmers to cultivate food on these farms to feed the nation and perhaps for export, the way it is done in certain Caricom countries, Canada and the United States of America.
    Private farmers should be able to enter into a lease with Government to cultivate farms on mutually agreed “arable state lands” if they wish to ensure a livelihood in a less contentious atmosphere.

  4. The government needs to develop a proper land policy. Housing should be base in Urban area. Just putting housing all over the country is wrong. Why? Because prime agricultural lands are being savaged. Besides many of the NHA housing are lying empty, why don’t Roodal and Jerlean fix those houses first, rather than building more houses.

    What the NHA is doing is building houses wherever it thinks it should be built.

    In addition the government should sell plots of land to those who need houses and let them build their houses on those plots. Many of the NHA houses are unliveable and a waste of tax payers money. Estimated cost to fix NHA houses $250 million. Why build these houses in the first place??? Government could give the people loans to build the houses.

    This is another runaway department.

  5. Develop the land and let the people build their own houses. This will bring in revenue in the form of taxes and rates. This would save the government a yearly maintenance bill on repairs. Let us be smart about this. The present homes occupied by persons should be given to the tenants and let them take care of the repairs.

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