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Little chance for agriculture

“Please do not sell it to people coming from abroad … work with me. Use the special development concessions that I will give you to give yourself a stake in this country. Use the land to put in apartments, use it to put in commercial facilities, but for God’s sake, don’t sell it to people coming from abroad… This is the time for you to translate your land into wealth and income and to give your children and grandchildren a real stake in Barbados.” — Owen Arthur, January 17, 1999, Speightstown, St. Peter.

Agriculture is fighting an almost losing battle. Perhaps, even if the Fates heard agronomist Dr. Frances Chandler’s frustrated plea for the “blessing” of a period of starvation in Barbados, not even that might wake the too large a percentage of our nation’s citizens from their apathy and attitude toward feeding themselves to some significant degree.

Unfortunately, with the exception of those patriotic few who sensibly see the over-arching benefits of a thriving agriculture industry, too many Barbadians do not link wealth generation and major income earning to agriculture.

It is part of the psyche of the island, encouraged by many of our leaders, from National Hero Errol Barrow to the eminent Owen Arthur, that agriculture is mainly dirt, drudgery, animal faeces and workers defecating in canefields, while growing apartments and commercial buildings offers the better road map to success and personal enrichment.

Though probably influenced by the conditions experienced by workers, especially women, in the sugar industry and the competition which that industry was receiving from beet sugar, Barrow nevertheless did not send the right message when more than three decades ago he infamously said he hoped the day would come when not one blade of cane was seen in the island.

Today, sugar production is still an important foreign exchange earner.

Some will point to the fact that Barbados has always had a Ministry of Agriculture and the industry is therefore given consideration. To which, we say, so what?

Despite the presence of a Ministry of Agriculture and several off-shoots of that ministry, agriculture has been treated as a poor relative of other ministries by every post-Independent Government in Barbados, bar none. One merely has to check the annual Estimates and see the level of allocations for this poor cousin, or take note of those who fret and fume when they are “saddled” with the ministry.

It is interesting that on that fateful night 14 years ago the former Prime Minister did not implore his cheering subjects to put their land and energies into agricultural activity. His advice suggested that the only way they could “translate your land into wealth” was via apartments and commercial facilities.

During the ground-breaking ceremony for the Apes Hill Club project in St. James in 2006 the political leader of the day noted that it was not the Government’s intention to not contribute to agriculture and small business, but suggested these sectors provided only “$10 million solutions to a $100 billion problem”.

He noted that under the circumstances Barbados’ land use policy was unflaggingly headed toward making the most productive use of Barbados’ scarcest resource, which was selling upmarket services. It was probably forgotten, deliberately so, that Barbados’ ridiculously high, and quite frankly, embarrassing food import bill, was part of that $100 billion problem. Agriculture had little chance.

While some of the island’s best arable land has been used to grow apartments and commercial facilities, landless farmers have been condemned to marginal farming land in the Land for the Landless Programme. A BADMC report some years ago indicated that only 58 per cent of public land was arable for crop production and that most of the private lands on offer to Government were unsuitable for crop production. Agriculture had little chance.

But the major problem is the attitude of many to agriculture. A check through our supermarkets and mega-markets is likely to produce hundreds of commodities that should not be allowed into the island for commercial distribution. They can be produced here and in sufficient quantities to have the desired economic ripple effect.

But too many power brokers have paid lip service to agriculture and to reducing our parasitic dependency on other nations’ produce. In such an environment, agriculture has little chance.

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