Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CARIBBEAN: Agriculture Literally Losing Ground

Peter Richards

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincents, Oct 9 2008 (IPS) - Natasha Neus of Suriname says it is crystal clear what Caribbean governments need to do to bring the region’s food crisis under control.

“The policy has to start with the people, the farmers – they know the problems, they know the solutions to the problems,” she told a two-day Agricultural Round Table discussion here this week under the theme “Connecting, Communicating and Cooperating to Secure our Caribbean Agri-Culture”.

The discussion was organised by “The Alliance” comprising the Inter American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Caribbean Community, the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) and the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation.

Formed in 2000, the Alliance was initially a forum for Caribbean ministers of agriculture to discuss regional policies and strategies in the sector. But it has broadened to include other stakeholders, including civil society, non-governmental organisations, the media, youth and women in agriculture, agribusiness and research and development.

Speaking at the Oct. 6-8 meeting, Neus, who advises various NGOs, communities and groups on sustainable agriculture and community development, said it is important for regional governments to re-think how they communicate with farmers on developing agricultural policies, particularly in the current environment of rising food prices and high production costs.

“The international agenda is put on the national agenda, which in turn is put on the heads of the people, [but] we have no input,” she said.

“We need to say ‘this is our agenda’ and then ask the international community ‘where do you see you could fit’,” she said, adding that regional governments were also facing resource challenges in implementing “at the ground level” the decisions taken during high-level talks.

It’s a position that has found support from Clive Bishop of the Vincentian Association of Organic Farmers, who argued that until now, countries have had little choice but to “import much more and produce less” since “farmers were not empowered under the international agenda forced on us”.

Jethro Green, the chief coordinator of the Caribbean Farmers Network, says it appears that regional leaders are not listening to the pleas of farmers, since most of the issues raised during the two-day deliberations have been articulated repeatedly before.

“We spend years and years talking about the same things over and over. What we need now is more action and less talk,” he said. “Why do we have to wait until we have a problem?”

Neus said that it is important for the region to regard agriculture as “an investment and not a poor man’s refuge”.

The Caribbean food import bill stands at a staggering 3.5 billion dollars a year, and that figure is expected to rise significantly given the current increases in inputs occasioned by the high cost of energy.

Regional officials acknowledge that the Caribbean’s ability to respond to the challenge of growing more local food has been hampered by a lack of resources for meaningful research and development work, among other factors.

The University of the West Indies (UWI), the region’s premier higher education institution, suspended its agricultural research programme years ago, while CARDI, which is tasked with research and development, is “extremely handicapped for lack of funding”.

“Even within our own ministries, research and development units lack the resources and manpower necessary for such work,” admitted one government minister.

A document circulated ahead of this week’s meeting warned that “agriculture is losing ground to other activities in the Cabinet pecking order” and pointed to “the continuous decline in government budgetary allocations relative to other sectors.”

According to official figures for nine Caribbean countries, including Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, funding for agriculture has either remained constant or has decreased. From 2000 to 2002, only one of these countries – Guyana – maintained the same budgetary allocation as had been the case from 1998-99. In the other countries, the budgetary allocation had decreased.

“Agriculture is losing ground, literally… It is experiencing what the British called ‘sealing of the lands’, with the sealants, more often than not, being hotel, entertainment and housing construction, blamed on expanding urbanisation and its attendant social/recreational facilities,” said the document.

In addition to those problems, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Agriculture Minister Montgomery Daniel said that loss of preferential treatment in global markets and low productivity are posing serious challenges to the Caribbean agricultural sector.

“Commercial banks and other financial institutions do not recognise agriculture as any viable business, disasters are creating havoc across the region, some insurance companies are taking less risks, input prices are beyond the reach of many farmers, climate change is affecting seasonal production, and the list goes on and on,” he said

“Equally, there is no doubt that agriculture today is in a state of transformation and stands at the epicentre of international trade issues. Globalisation and trade liberalisation is wreaking havoc on our island economies,” he added.

In recent months, Caribbean countries have had to deal with major losses in the agricultural sector.

In St. Kitts-Nevis, the sugar industry was abandoned completely, with authorities now concentrating on developing the services sector, while Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados have seen drastic reductions in their sugar industries.

The banana industry, once called “green gold” in Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, “is fighting desperately to maintain a position of silver,” said Daniel, noting that in its heyday, the industry brought 137 million dollars annually to the economies of those islands.

“Today the industry is generating just under 37 million dollars,” Daniel said.

IICA director general Dr. Chelston Brathwaite said Caribbean countries must come to the realisation “it can’t be business as usual” and there must be a reversal of the attitude of not wanting to eat the things that are produced in the region.

“Our independence in my view is undermined once we depend on others to feed us,” he said, acknowledging that “we will never be able to produce all that we need, but we need to make a start.”

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