Sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest difference. In the case of the Chinese backed agricultural project, answers to questions and concerns seem to be the difference between unrest and calm. It is another prime example of how transparency is the most powerful weapon in the government’s arsenal.
Most recently, members of the National Coalition of Farmers continued their fight for answers relating to the project, which calls for some 4,000 acres of land to be committed to the agriculture development project sponsored by the Chinese government and implemented by the Yuan Longping High-Tech Agriculture Company (LPHT). Among other things, the farmers cannot reconcile why the project would need 2,000 acres on Antigua and a similar amount on Barbuda if the project is focused on technical assistance provided by a team of just a few experts from China.
This seems like a logical question to ask, and, on the face of it, it also seems like an easy question to answer. That said, from the farmers perspective, there has been no satisfactory answer coming from our government, and the Chinese are too polite and diplomatic to step to the microphone. That void of information causes unease, and we are baffled why those with the answers do not simply come forward and quell the situation.
Various documents have been released to the farmers but they are still unsatisfied. Defenders will ask, “What more do they want?” The answer to that is simple. They want satisfactory answers to simple questions so that they can relate to the benefits that may accrue from this project. And, from what we have heard, none of these questions are too tough. The farmers have made it clear that the documents lacked “detail” and “specificity,” and they are in the dark as to how they will be involved. If the core of this project is designed to benefit agriculture and the farmers, then it is logical that the key stakeholders (i.e. the farmers) should know all of the details. Not only is this sensible but it appears it would be a necessity if the project is to be a success.
The lack of transparency is the major stumbling block, but what makes matters worse is that there appears to be conflict within government on at least one key aspect of the agreement … the land allocation. In both the leaked and released versions of the document, there is an allocation of 4,000 acres of land; however, Prime Minister Gaston Browne has said that 4,000 was never discussed, nor approved. Dean Jonas has indicated that he insisted on a greater allocation of land, but that raises the question of his authority in the matter and the reasoning behind the massive allocation. Again, the Chinese will stay mum on these matters, but it does not appear that they requested such a sizeable allocation since this is not to be a for-profit initiative, rather, the focus is only on technical assistance.
We really do not think that there is anything nefarious with this project, but the land allocation does raise questions. A dose of transparency would go a long way in providing comfort to the farmers and the public. No one should get upset that the farmers have questions, and no one should deny them the answers that they seek.
Getting back to the core of the situation, it appears that a well-intentioned and potentially beneficial project is being derailed because of an unnecessary lack of transparency and an unwillingness to engage the key stakeholders in each of the project’s stages. It is obvious that eight Chinese technicians cannot farm 4,000 acres of land, so why doesn’t the Ministry simply explain the reasons for an allocation of that size?
Beyond the land issue, it is obvious that the farmers are interested to know what is going on. That is evident by their visit to the Greencastle Agricultural Station in Bendals where they sought to sensitize themselves on where the project has reached and where it is going. As sticky as this situation is, it appears to be a good opportunity to get the parties on the same page. The Government certainly has the attention of the farmers so why not use their current focus to bring them up to speed on all that the project entails? We are willing to bet that both sides would be pleasantly surprised by what benefits the other side can bring to the table. And, once everyone is on the same page, at the same table and singing the same tune, agriculture will benefit, the people will benefit and paradise will be a bit better. How does that sound?