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TT agri groups oppose farming deal with Guyana

UNDER FIRE: Trinidad and Tobago’s Finance Minister Larry Howai.

(TRINIDAD GUARDIAN).-Reports that the Government plans to provide 10,000 acres of land in Guyana for T&T’s farmers have already stirred up discontentment within the agricultural industry.

Among the groups voicing their concerns are the T&T Agriculture Society, United Farmers Association and the T&T Cane Producers Association. In an interview yesterday, president of the T&T United Farmers Association Shiraz Ali called on the Government to disclose who are the farmers who would stand to benefit from farming in Guyana. He added that development of agricultural land in Guyana would not bring about a dent in T&T’s $4 billion food import bill. Ali said any move to boost agricultural diversification in T&T should be geared at reducing this exorbitant figure which has contributed to escalating inflation. “If those T&T farmers bring in food into the country will it not be considered imported food?  This effort is not going to bring a dent on the food import bill,” he said.

Ali noted there was more than 10,000 acres of fertile agricultural land in T&T which could be developed for farming. “Local farmers are yearning for government support in terms of lease and infrastructure,” he said. “We ignore them yet we plan to take selected farmers to Guyana and give them massive loans for housing. This doesnt make sense. What will be our return from this investment?” Ali said. He noted that farmers in Wallerfield and Carlsen Field had been begging for years for land to be regularised. “Recently, the Government gave 500 farmers two acre-leases but those farmers have no road access to lands, no water for their crops when dry season comes,” Ali said. “How can they use these lands if there is no infrastructure? Why is government concerned about satisfying its financiers and friends rather than develop agriculture in T&T.” He noted that under the PNM, the then agriculture minister Arnold Piggott spoke about bringing 7,000 people into lucrative farming. Ali said the Government should follow the same by offering leases, incentives and loans to local farmers.

Instead of offering lands in Guyana to local farmers, Ali said the Government should consider setting up a mega farm in Guyana which would produce corn for animal feed production. He explained that corn was fast becoming scarce because the United States was using corn to produce biofuel. Ali also said the Government had no consultation with stakeholders in the agricultural sector before deciding on land development in Guyana. He revealed that local farmers were facing fierce competition from T&T’s mega farms. “Caroni has 77,000 acres of lands which are now abandoned. We have the Non Pareil Estate in Sangre Grande which is 27,00 acres plus. In Wallerfield, we have over 1,200 acres. There are thousands of acres in Carlsen Field. For years we have been begging government to make  lands available. Why do they now want to go to Guyana? What is the cost arrangement with Guyana. How will we get produce back to Trinidad?” Sookoo said.

She added that the mega farms of T&T was supposed to cater for exporting but instead were causing a glut in the market. She said T&T had enough land to produce food for all of Caricom.
“Proper freight arrangements are not there. All we have is schooners and we need proper refrigerated vessels to allow us to export. Why doesn’t government deal with these problems rather than focussing on developing agriculture in Guyana,” Sookoo lamented. She said a lot has been invested in agriculture, including the digging of 500 farm ponds and paving of hundreds of kilometres of access roads. “What we need now are leases and proper methods to sustain agriculture,” she added. President of the Cane Producers Association Seukaran Tambie also said he was skeptical about who would benefit from the Guyananese agriculture development plan. “Is it big business or smaller farmers who stand to gain. What is the cost arrangements between T&T and Guyana? It will cost more than $50,000 to develop one acre of land. Who will pay for this?” Tambie said. He accused the Government of trying to kill the local agriculture industry. Tambie said every sector of agriculture had been declining in recent years. He also said that no consultation was ever made with the local agriculture stakeholders before decisions were made to boost agriculture.

It is expected that Finance Minister Larry Howai would outline the details of the new land policy in Guyana. Under the agreement investors would be able to apply to the Ministry of Food Production for a permit to farm in Guyana.