Get on with it! (Part I)

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(Reflections for World Food Day – October 16)

The Mighty Franco says that he is going to help his St. Lucian friend, Willie, “Fork up de lan, fork up de lan; fork up de lan, that is my greatest plan / Ah go fork up fast, all behind dem grass / Ah go fork in de front; fork in de back / Ah go fork up, fork up, fork up, de lan / Dey go call me king of cultivation.” After all, as he asserts, “Cultivation is de lifeblood of any nation.” Very well said, Franco.

Unfortunately, the folks who have been placed in charge of agriculture here in our fair State have not yet gotten that memo. Agriculture almost seems to be an afterthought. In the fiscal 2020 budget, a puny $18.3M was allocated to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Barbuda Affairs, out of a record $1.7B budget. The year before, it was a peppercorn $16M – two decidedly unserious allocations, by a manifestly unserious Minister of Agriculture, in the person of Minister Dean Jonas. The former, if you will recall, was unceremoniously fired by Prime Minister Gaston Browne, in front of the Agriculture Extension workers for incompetence and malingering, among other failures.  That was in January of this year.  And that was after the PM had warned the good Dean Jonas to “shape up or ship out.” Jonas, a man given to doing his own thing, (word was that he had failed to present budgetary figures for the preparation of the 2020 budget, despite being asked several times), prompting the PM to declare, “For more than six months, I have tried to dissuade you from taking decisions that are inimical to good governance and to my government’s policy. My attempts have been in vain. Your relationship with your staff in the ministry is toxic, and a continuous decline is evident from the reports that have reached me. The relationship with the farmers is also toxic and deteriorating further.”

Of course, if we were expecting a great deal more from his replacement, the good Minister Samantha Marshall, we really have not been paying attention to most of the MP’s in this administration. They are merely treading water, doing the barest minimum to get by. No grand vision. No overarching policy. No new, progressive ideas. No real workable plan to help farmers meet the enormous challenges that they face – access to water, storage, ready markets, funding, protection from praedial larceny, and so on and so forth. Sigh!

Whatever happened to great agriculturalists like the late, Rolston Edwards, who was instrumental in the enhancement of our Antigua Black pineapple by way of the Cades Bay project? We were exporting the sweetest pineapples in the world under his guidance. And yes, we were canning and preserving pineapples and other locally grown fruit and vegetables at Dunbars, a great project implemented by the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM) administration. During the hey day of agriculture here in Antigua and Barbuda (the PLM years), we had outstanding men like Mr Hayden Thomas, the chemist up at Dunbars. We’re talking about Mr Henry Francis, one of our finest agricultural minds, and the father of our esteemed King Frank-I Francis.

Whatever happened to men like our very own Vincent ‘Tubby’ Derrick, another of our great agriculture minds, who worked under our greatest Minister of Agriculture, the Honourable Sir Robert Hall? Together, they guaranteed our farmers a market by purchasing all they could produce through the revolutionary Central Marketing Corporation (CMC) which they founded. Yes, we were exporting potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, cotton, sorrel and other produce to our neighbours and countries as far away as Canada. All that area in Bethesda, from the main road up to Willoughby Bay, was under cultivation, and several silos were erected there for storage.

Ask another great farmer in his own right, Vernon Hall, the scion of Sir Robert Hall. He knows a thing or two about self-sufficiency – the ability to feed our selves. That was the watchword back then under his dad. Today, they call it ‘food security.’ Minister Marshall loves throwing that fancy expression around, but . . .

Whatever happened to men like the Honourable John St Luce who was in his element as Minister of Agriculture during some of the Antigua Labour Party years? During his latter years in government, and after his retirement from politics, St. Luce devoted his life to farming. He absolutely loved it, and delighted in showing his farm and talking about new ways and new methods of increasing his yield. Whatever happened to men like the great Leonard ‘Tim’ Hector who made agriculture a major part of his African/Antigua Liberation Movement (ACLM)? Tim subscribed to the truism that “A nation that cannot feed itself is not free.” [LA VIA CAMPESINA, The International Peasants’ Movement]. Just ask George ‘Junie’ Goodwin, our Ambassador to Cuba who studied agriculture over there, and has been hailed as one of our leading agricultural minds? We’re talking about Mr  Cedric Henry of the Christian Valley Propagation Project which came into its own under Sir Robert Hall.  We’re talking about men like Mr Karl Walter, a brother of our recently-departed Sir Selvyn Walter. We’re talking about the great Mr Ernest Benjamin, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture during the PLM years. All the aforementioned are ‘a rare breed, soon to be extinct,’ and if current trends continue – the mediocre support for farmers; the paltry sums allocated to the industry, the annoying lip service – we’ll quickly be in a fine pickle. (Pun intended)

In August of this year, our PM lamented the great deal of money that we were spending to import produce – more than $18M annually. Said he, “What the government is seeking to do now is to increase production and to displace most of those imports.” Would that they would get on with it! You see, our dire lack of self-sufficiency aka food security came into stark relief at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis in March of this year, when many countries shut down. Panic gripped us. And suddenly, the Ministry of Agriculture was handing out seedlings and urging everybody to grow their own food. To be fair, Mr Owolabi Elabanjo, our Senior Agriculture Extension Officer, has been encouraging backyard gardening for quite some time, but the sense of urgency, what with the uncertainties of the Covid crisis, brought home how far we’d fallen short, individually, and on a national basis. Sigh! Where is the Mighty Franco when we need him? He could teach us a thing or two about ‘forking up’ de land.

(To be continued tomorrow)

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