EDITORIAL: Two mega-farms?

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The Government of Antigua and Barbuda has released the official document outlining the agreement for the controversial Chinese funded Antigua and Barbuda Agricultural Technology Cooperation Project. You know, the one that caused the uproar with the local farming community because the leaked draft agreement indicated that 4,000 acres of land was to be allocated to the project. The one that saw the Minister of Agriculture, Dean Jonas, get so worked up that he condescendingly referred to the concerned farmers as “the so-called farming community,” a description that he later walked back. The same one that Prime Minister Browne said “did not indicate anything about farming 4,000 acres of land,” when he signed it in late 2017. You remember now?

Well, according to the ‘final’ agreement, that was officially released by the Government, “Antigua and Barbuda will apply an incremental approach towards expanding crop farming through transfer and adaptation of shared Chinese Agricultural Production techniques utilising privately owned, crown and lease land, starting with approximately 1,000 acres of land, increasing to at least 2,000 acres of land in Antigua and 2,000 acres of land on the island of Barbuda in consultation with the Barbuda Council.” Please note, the document released by the Ministry has no signatures and no date. Is that how agreements are done between nations? In the real world, there needs to be dates for a contract to be enforceable.  At least that is what we have been taught.

Hmmm. This is a hard one to figure out so we brought in some highly qualified math experts. Their conclusion? Two plus two equals four! We suspected as much but we didn’t want to have anyone accuse us of any creative math. So, now that the math is completed and everyone is satisfied with its accuracy, it would appear that “THE PROJECT,” as it is referred to in the document, will eventually have 2,000 acres of land in Antigua and 2,000 acres of land in Barbuda allocated to it. A total of 4,000 acres! Sure sounds a lot like the 4,000 acres that set this whole debate into motion, so can someone please explain?

To get an understanding of what 4,000 acres of farmland in Antigua and Barbuda is all about, we will refer you back to the Government’s press release, which states, “… in Antigua and Barbuda, approximately 1,000 acres of land are under agricultural production with an estimated 100 acres being farmed under public sector initiatives and the rest under private sector production.” So, the thought is to quintuple the productive farmland in Antigua and Barbuda. As we stated in our previous piece on this matter, this is a laudable effort on the surface, but the devil is in the details.

No one can rant against the push toward greater food self-sufficiency. We live in a volatile world, and any country that can produce all or the majority of its food is in a better position than another that does not. We will happily champion this cause, but we prefer to see it in the context of a master plan. How does this project fit into the Ministry of Agriculture’s master plan for greater food security?  

Three years to establish 4,000 acres of productive farmland and several greenhouses seem aggressive and remind us of another ‘mega-farm’ that may be on the horizon. We, of course, refer to the state-supported Antigua Development Coin (ADC), which sought to raise US$100 million to do, among other things, a mega-farm. The now suspended ADC was introduced via a letter, on official Government letterhead, from the then Minister of Agriculture Arthur Nibbs, so we presume that it must also be part of the Ministry’s master plan. Two mega-farms in Antigua and Barbuda? That is impressive, but we worry about the sustainability issues considering that farms need water – lots and lots of water!  (By the way, the Chinese farms dwarf the ADC, self described “mega-farm” by a factor of 50!)

Already we hear farmers moaning and groaning about water supply and affordability; however, in the case of the Chinese project, it appears that the water supply is the responsibility of the Government. Which leads us to ask:  has APUA been consulted on this mega-farm project? We sure hope so because a 2,000-acre farm in Barbuda might strain the supply. Heck, two mega-farms in Antigua will probably strain the water supply as well.

Minister Jonas said that he is confident the release of the official agreement will finally put all concerns to rest, but that is not the case. Questions remain and more concerns have been raised. This is why it is so important for Governments to be transparent from Day One.  Consult with the stakeholder and the people because, ultimately, it is the shortest route to success.

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