Farmers to protest TT, Guyana land deal

Last Updated on Saturday, 26 December 2015, 21:01 by GxMedia

Photo by Betchart Expeditions.

(TRINIDAD GUARDIAN).-The National Foodcrop Farmers’ Association (NFFA) says it is planning a major protest to object to the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the T&T and Guyana governments that will provide 10,000 acres of land in Berbice for immediate agricultural production. A further 90,000 acres of Guyana’s land will also be made available to T&T, with the Government inviting private-sector investment in agricultural production.

The initiative was unveiled by Finance Minister Larry Howai on Monday in his budget presentation. Farmers said they were “not consulted.” T&T is currently looking at ways to reduce its import of food from outside of Caricom. In response to the initiative and the $1.3 billion allocated to the Food Production Ministry headed by Minister Devant Maharaj, economist Indera Sagewan-Alli on Wednesday said the Government was “playing dolly house” with the agriculture sector and obtaining food security.

Sookoo: Land can be sourced locally
President of the Agricultural Society of T&T (ASTT) Dhanoo Sookoo said the decision was not properly thought out. Sookoo believes the country has sufficient arable lands that farmers can use, which are currently being underutilised. Sookoo cited 14,000 acres of Caroni 1975 Ltd lands that were made available to former workers that can be cultivated. “We have to analyse that and see how much of it is actually under production.” She estimated that less than ten per cent of this land is under cultivation.

Lands in Orange Grove Estate in Tacarigua, Sangre Grande and south Trinidad could also be sourced by the Land Management Division, Sookoo said. Sookoo said the ASTT was not consulted before the signing of the MoU and information about the project was being withheld. “I would recommend through the Finance Ministry that matter be given more discussion. We need to put an enabling environment in place so our farmers can produce food.”

Haywood: Put T&T’s agriculture sector in order
NFFA’s president Terrence Haywood said they are totally against the move. He said the Government should put its house in order before going outside. “Right now our farmers are unable to get leases, irrigation ponds and proper infrastructure. This is unfair to us. They need to see about our farmers first. This is a slap in the face for us.” Haywood said there was no consultation with his association which represents 19,000 farmers who are upset over the Government’s latest move.

“We are calling for this decision to be rescinded.” Haywood said the farmers intend to have a forum and “if they (the Government) fail to listen to our suggestions, we will protest.”

Ramsammy: T&T farmers will be responsible for infrastructure
In an article in the Starbroek News on September 9, Guyana’s Agriculture Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy said Trinidad farmers will be responsible for infrastructure and whatever has been put in place will be for the benefit of the Guyanese farmers. Ramsammy also assured that his country stood to benefit all-round in the land allocation.

However, in a CNC3 report on Thursday, Ramsammy dismissed misinformation being circulated by some individuals that land would be taken away from local farmers to give to Trinidadians. He explained that the 10,000 acres of land to be allocated to Trinidad was part of a package of collaboration that Guyana had been pursuing around the Caribbean.

“There is vast potential for development, but we do not have the resources to develop it. Everyone is always talking and agreeing that Guyana should attract investors, well agriculture is one area, and whether it’s from the Caribbean or outside, we should encourage it,” Ramsammy said. The minister stated that agriculture remains one of the pillars of development, and Guyana has approximately 3.3 million hectares of agricultural lands available. This is a resource which the whole Caribbean cannot match.
At present only 500,000 hectares is being used for the cultivation of rice, sugar, and cash crops. “Any business that is established here creates jobs and an inflow of wealth to the national GDP and treasury. Our export will increase because whether it is produced by Trinidadians or Chinese, it is still Guyana’s products…we are working with Trinidad so as to ensure that what is produced on our farms will have value-added in Guyana. This includes agro-processing and packaging, which will be done in Guyana,” Ramsammy said.

In 2004, former president Bharrat Jagdeo made an offer to the people and governments of the Caribbean to collaborate with Guyana and expand this vast amount of underdeveloped agricultural lands. Within the period of one year, three technical teams from Trinidad visited Guyana looking at investments in areas such as aquaculture, coconut and rice.

Hutchinson: Government not concerned about food security
Dr Sharon Hutchinson, an agricultural economist at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus said on Friday, the details outlined were vague. “I would have really wanted to have seen a little more information articulated about the plan, in particular, how it is going to work, who is going to benefit, where the inputs will come from, and what crops they are going to target?” She said no one knew if inputs and labour would come from Guyana, Trinidad or both countries.

Hutchinson said when the Government gives broad statements, “it is hard for us to make a decision.” Describing the allocation given to the ministry as “sad,” Hutchinson said this was one of the concerns she had expressed before the budget. “Now the slice of the agriculture pie is even smaller. It suggests to me that the Government is not really concerned about food security.”

Maharaj: Land would inspire farmers to reduce prices 

A message left on Maharaj’s phone on Friday was not returned. On Thursday, Maharaj in a CNC3 report said the MoU would grant investors plots of lands, which they could operate as mega farms. Maharaj said this initiative would be a sound investment unit, which would seek proposals from the community of Trinidad. “Investors and farmers and so on will be evaluated along the same lines as we did for the large farms.” The fees for land, Maharaj said, will be small.

Stating that he was optimistic about the project, Maharaj said he had in the past received requests from local farmers to lease large areas of land. Maharaj believed that the move would inspire farmers to reduce their prices and become more effective and efficient in their own production. As consumers continued to complain about soaring food prices, Maharaj said, the intention was be to bring the prices to an affordable level.

Maharaj said in four years T&T would be able to reap the benefits of this initiative, which would be at no cost to the taxpayer.