India’s agriculture contributes only 15% percent of its GDP but provides a livelihood to more than 60% of its population. In Trinidad and Tobago, agriculture contributes less than 0.3% of GDP but employs 4% of the population, that is, approximately 25,000 (2018 statistics). Should the GDP increase to 1%, the number of persons employed would increase to 13.3% or 80,000!
In Trinidad and Tobago, our farmers continue to be treated as second class citizens. When it floods farmers’ crops are destroyed and compensation is always slow at coming. Access roads are not developed for farmers to reach their lands and take out their produce; praedial larceny continues to be a bugbear. Generally, government after government demonstrates little interest in the welfare of our farmers who are left to fend for themselves.
The government’s main trust is to protect the food importers who are their campaign financiers. Annually, 4-6 billion US dollars are spent on importing food, much of which our farmers are producing. More alarming is the fact that scarce forex is provided to these importers when the average citizen is denied a few hundred dollars to conduct essential transactions.
The powers that be have succeeded in making invisible our farmers. Their struggles are hardly part of the national conversion. The editors of the newspapers do not have journalists dedicated to reporting agriculture-related issues. This is so for many reasons but most importantly because the food importers are the owners of the media houses. Even our Indian-owned media houses do not highlight adequately issues in the farming community.
Compounding the marginalization of our farmers in the media is the absence of an agricultural lobby seeking farmers’ welfare. This is despite the fact that we have hundreds of youths graduating with degrees and diplomas from tertiary level institutions including The UWI. Their education and learning have simply failed to benefit their communities.
Apart from Ramesh Ramsumair, Chairman of the Pineapple Farmers’ Association, and Omardath Maharaj and Shiraz Khan, there is a dearth of people championing the cause of our farmers. The Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago is not clear about its role. In the last General Elections, its President, Dhano Sookoo, presented herself before the PNM screening committee for selection to contest a seat but was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, she continues as President of the Agricultural Society when it would have been morally right for her to resign.
Political parties do not recruit candidates with a strong interest in agriculture. With the exception of Vasant Bharat, no Minister of Agriculture has attended to his portfolio with focus and dedication. Clarence Rambharat, the current Minister of Agriculture and the Parliamentary Secretary, Avinash Singh, have demonstrated no real commitment to the problems of farmers. Rambharat’s idle boast is his dismantling of Caroni (1975) Ltd and sending more than 9,000 workers on the breadline.
As for Avinash Singh and his family, they are active farmers engaged in food production. He would have certainly been more suitable for the portfolio of Minister of Agriculture but the Prime Minister knows better. It is clear that Clarence Rambharat’s role is not to develop but the destroy agriculture. Interestedly he has added to his portfolio the denigration of the doubles vendors, the few hard-working people in the country.
The bureaucracy in Ministry of Agriculture leaves much to be desired. One farmer shares his experience with the poor processing of subsidies for farmers. There is an urgent need for a time frame for the processing of farmers’ claims. One farmer told me that it took more than two years for him to get his subsidies and when his check came, it was one-fifth of what he was supposed to receive. The officer realized his error in the processing of the documents and promised to re-submit the claims. With the accounting period closed that claim now has to go right up to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Minister for approval, taking another two years.
With revenues from the energy sector in decline, the government needs to diversify the economy, and one area that can generate employment in agriculture. With forex in decline, the government would have to stop and take heed of its inability to import food. The urgent need is for the government to provide the necessary infrastructure-roads, irrigation, drainage, markets, subsidies, praedial larceny squad, and other incentives to boost production. Despite the many challenges our farmers continue to produce food for the nation. Also, many youths are engaged in farming producing bumper crops of pumpkin, pineapples, watermelons, pawpaw, and other food crops. With or without the help of the government, the media, and the bureaucracy, our farmers are continuing to produce food to feed this nation. They are the true entrepreneurs and the bedrock of our economy.