As agriculture executives faced a Public Accounts Committee reviewing the operations of Namdevco, a troubling picture of the local agriculture industry emerged.
Namdevco's CEO Nirmalla Denysingh-Persad confirmed that there are 13,000 farmers in the country, 500 who made regular use of the state agriculture agency's facilities and 2,300 who participated in its farm certification and monitoring programme. But Debysingh-Persad could not answer questions put to her about the other 10,000 farmers. The agency has no data on these farmers at all.
Namdevco was keen to talk about training for local farmers to export more successfully to Canada and the US, but it wasn't clear how these initiatives would work if the agency did not even have basic information about the agricultural capacity available in TT.
Farming, despite the challenges it has continually faced in TT, is a relatively simple activity. Grow food. Bring it to market. Repeat. Within that simplicity, there is a staggering number of potential problems that must be managed for success, ranging from the quality of soil and irrigation to the prevailing taste for goods at market.
Even at the level of the Prime Minister, there seems to be uncertainty about the prospects and viability of agriculture in this country. In October, Dr Rowley declared that there wasn’t enough land available in TT for the nation to become a major global agricultural player. That statement was roundly condemned by several agriculture stakeholders. Agricultural Society president Dhano Sookoo pointed out that the country has thousands of acres of arable land which aren’t being properly managed or even accessible to farmers.
What’s clearly needed for improvement in the sector is better planning, quite literally from the ground up, something that Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries Clarence Rambharat has called for since early in his appointment.
In December, the Prime Minister promised agriculture incentives for former Petrotrin employees as part of measures to assist the thousands that the closure of the refinery left unemployed. Petrotrin employees who met the requirements of the Agricultural Development Bank, he promised, would be eligible for a special financial support package of up to $500,000. Will this spark a surge in agriculture across the south of Trinidad? Or will it track more closely with the failed effort to turn the abandoned cane fields of central Trinidad into farmland?
To have any success with agriculture, our political leadership must set realistic goals for the sector, develop infrastructure supported by real world data and monitor the results of their investment. It’s not acceptable for the state’s agricultural marketing and development agency to just admit that they know nothing about more than three-quarters of the farmers working in this country.