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Monday 27 January 2020
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Dhano Sookoo: Farmers don’t farm for compensation

President of the Trinidad and Tobago Agricultural Society, Dhano Sookoo, says this country’s farmers have lost “a substantial amount of money” in the recent flooding and heavy rains that lashed TT over the past few weeks.

Sookoo said the farming community was still assessing its losses. However she noted, “What we have been looking at is the loss (of) crops but in many areas farmers would have had double losses. That means they would have lost their personal items and they would have also lost their livelihood, which is their crops. So, the losses to the agricultural sector and to the farming community is substantial. Right now, I would say, hundreds of millions, maybe, billions.”

Agricultural economist, Omardath Maharaj said it would be difficult to estimate the financial damage to the agricultural sector without all the appropriate information. “But, of course, one can only imagine, considering there was damage to the Orange Grove Foodcrop project; Maloney; Plum Mitan; Navet; Biche; Cushe; Rio Claro; Mayaro; the Moruga Foodcrop Project was also severely damaged,” he said, adding that a lot of the country’s core food producing areas suffered damage.

“If you look at these agricultural communities there is an even spread of the type of agriculture that takes place. Across the sector, a lot of the sub- sectors of agricultural commodities were damaged. Of course, the valuation is in the few hundreds of millions of dollars, I imagine, because it is not only in terms of crop damage, but it becomes increasingly visible if you look at rural infrastructure agricultural production, you look at the communities and the livelihoods of farmers and rural people put together, and not only would that add up to a significant sum in dollars, but it also threatens national food security.”

He continued, “…knowing that it threatens national food security, we cannot put a price to that, but it calls for an immediate reconciliation about how we have gone about this sector in the country because you compare the impact on local food production and you compare that to imported food.”

He said the point became obvious by looking at the types of foodstuff which is being distributed in the relief effort to households affected by the sustained rainfall. “The majority of it, if not over 90 percent, is imported food. A lot of it is canned, processed and preserved foods and so on. So if it is that in a time of disaster we become increasingly reliant on imported food sources, it says to me that the local food production system is both unsustainable and very vulnerable at this time.”

Asked whether it wasn’t obvious that food supplies used in a relief effort would have to be canned and processed foods which could be stored and would have a longer shelf life, Maharaj said, “Right, that speaks to the unsustainability of the system because we believe that all of the foods are only primary agricultural commodities. It speaks to the urgent need to invest not only in production capacity but for us to be looking further downstream the value chain into agro-processing, downstream industries and manufacturing and so on.”

Sookoo said the entire country was affected, but certain areas were hit harder. Areas such as Penal and Oropouche; Mayaro; Mafeking; Sangre Grande; the Vega de Oropouche area; Caparo; Todd’s Road in the Felicity area and Rio Claro. She said agriculture in all those areas has been “totally destroyed and the Orange Grove area in Tacarigua and Maloney were not spared." She said farmers suffered rainfall damage to their crops, “which in some cases is just as bad as if they were flooded out.”

According to Sookoo, it will take farmers “between four to six months to actually get back on their feet because they have two battles on their hands: to deal with the loss to their homes, their personal losses and then to deal with the loss to their livelihood. So it is a serious issue. Apart from that, preparing back your lands, getting your water channels freed, it’s going to take quite a while.”

In a response to Business Day’s questions last week, the Association of Trinidad and Tobago Insurance Companies (ATTIC) said it was too early to talk about valuation of any damage which may have been caused by the heavy rainfall.

“ATTIC has not yet begun to get responses from companies on their claims. So we do not yet have an idea of how companies have been affected,” said Nicholas Camacho, at the ATTIC Secretariat. He said the association will have to wait until its members begin to receive claims from their insured clients before it can form an idea of the extent of damage caused by the rainy weather.

Sookoo scoffed at a proposal by the San Juan Business Association for the government to undertake a “massive relocation” of farmers and residents from all flood prone areas in the country, and that those who refuse to move should not be eligible for compensation from the State if they should suffer losses in future floods. She said the association needed to get real. “So what are you going to do? Move the entire southland and bring it where? Orange Grove is grade one agricultural land. When you remove the farmers from grade one agricultural soil, where (are) you going to put them? On the mountaintop?”

She said, “The issue here is about the State and State agencies accepting responsibility for the lack of infrastructure or maintenance of infrastructure. That is what this is. The San Juan Business Association by their nonsense statement gives a clear indication to Trinidad and Tobago that they simply do not understand the agricultural sector in this country. So if you have to move out the farmers and residents from south Trinidad, you are talking about moving communities, where are you going to put them?”

Asked about the revolving door of futility in farmers getting compensation for flood losses to crops in one location only to use the money to re-establish cultivation in the same area and claim compensation again when they are flooded out the next year, Sookoo said she did not agree that it was a cycle of futility. She pointed to issues with infrastructure, including the cleaning of water channels, and made note of a water management plan for Orange Grove, which she said, “has been sitting on somebody’s desk for three years now waiting to be implemented.”

Sookoo said, “All they need to do is build a retention pond – the land has already been identified, just to bring in the excavators and dig the retention ponds that could hold the excessive water, saving 2,500 acres of crops and that is grade one agricultural soil. That is the land for agriculture, so farmers don’t farm for compensation to get ten cents for a plant. Who cares about compensation? Farmers are telling the State, ‘clean the water channels, that is your responsibility’. We as farmers (are) not supposed to go and clean the Caroni River, that is your responsibility as the State. The State has to accept its responsibility and maintain the infrastructure to alleviate these flooding issues.”

Sookoo said because of the heavy losses they have suffered, some farmers will drop out of agriculture. “Of course, many of them have already indicated that because (of) continuous losses, and because of failure by the State to do their duty. What we are going to see is what has happened in the Aranguez, El Socorro area where farmers have sold their lands for real estate because the State is not paying attention to the development of the sector. There is very little that is required – all the State has to do is to allow the agencies to do their duty.”

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