"The Tobago House of Assembly (THA) needs to get its act together where agriculture is concerned."
So said Tobago Agricultural Society president Orwin Dilllon, on Monday, as he weighed in on the measures that were announced for the sector in the 2019/2020 budget. Agriculture again received the lowest allocation in the $53 billion package – $708 million.
Dillon said while members of the association are very pleased with the government's decision to remove all taxes and duties for registered farmers, land availability for agriculture in Tobago remains a critical issue.
"My concern is the land availability for agricultural production. It is one thing for the tax to be mentioned but where are you going to implement the production?" he asked during a news conference on Monday at Patino's Restaurant, Buccoo, Tobago, where members of the Tobago Chamber of Commerce had gathered to listen to the reading of the budget.
Dillon disagreed with Finance Minister Colm Imbert's view that there is substantial agricultural production taking place on the island.
"The minister did boast about agricultural production with the access roads. But I am yet to agree with the minister because for the first time, we are now seeing sweet potato going to $16 per pound in Tobago and ginger, $16 per lb this year and yet we boast that access roads for farmers can increase production. We have seen increase in price instead of production."
Dillon said the land must be made available through the THA.
"They are the ones that own the majority of the estates on the island. That is the only way that food can become available and accessible to the citizens of this island."
He also claimed farmers are not getting the lands that are required.
"Friends are getting land for their purposes, not for agricultural purposes. Some of the access roads were cut so friends can have access to their private properties, not for agricultural purposes.
"If it was for agricultural purposes, we would have seen an increase in production and a decrease in price. That is not happening on the island. The THA needs to get its act together."
Former Tobago Chamber president David Wong refused to label the budget an election package.
However, he observed the budget appealed largely to individuals, through the 15 per cent salary increases announced for the CEPEP and URP as well as the $2.50 increase in the minimum wage, from $15 to $17.50 an hour.
"So, salaries usually hint towards encouraging people to do certain things," he said.
Wong said if it were an election budget, Tobagonians would not be fooled by these measures.
"Tobagonians have gotten smart in understanding that these things are only for a short period of time. Life is hopefully for a long period of time, and sustainable time. So homes, lifestyle, a salary for one year really does not make a difference to the individual.
"We are going to be around for a while. You are going to have children. They are going to grow up. You will want to do more and interact differently in life as you go along, as we all grow. I don't think Tobagonians will be buying into that rhetoric any longer."
Wong said he is pleased efforts are finally being made to implement the long-awaited procurement legislation.
"That has been hanging around a while now and it needs to go into place. The recent training sessions held in Tobago identified the good possibilities of this legislation: benefitting and levelling the playing field for equality and equity for people in the country, going forward with opportunity."
He also welcomed the daycare centres for children, under age three, parented by female-headed households.
"Those are always beneficial and useful. But we will have to be careful how they are deployed. We don't want to encourage the single-mother lifestyle. Children need both parents – mother and father."