February 24, 2006

Give farmers a fair chance

By any standards, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a tiny country. All together, we are a mere 150 square miles, with mainland St. Vincent having a total area of 133 square miles or 85,120 acres. Of this, our central mountain range and the presence of our volcano make over 1/3 of our land unsuitable for infrastructural development.

Our land therefore is a very scarce resource, one which seems to get even scarcer by the day, not because our population is growing, (as a matter of fact, the census figures indicate that it is decreasing), but because of other factors, many of which are external.{{more}}

Modernization and globalization are changing the way we live, and external forces by and large determine what goods and services we bring to the market. Consumer markets in Europe and North America, while not being willing to pay the price we need for our agricultural produce to ensure that our farmers get a living wage, are on the other hand clamouring for new, exotic, unspoilt destinations to visit and call home for part of the year.

At home, our citizens need sustainable jobs and the country needs some means of generating more foreign exchange. On the surface, it seems an almost perfect match. We have what the market is looking for, and we need their business. Enter large scale tourism projects for the mainland. This, the experts say, is what will turn around our economy.

Successive governments have identified the Buccament and Peter’s Hope areas on the Leeward side of the mainland as being prime for tourism development. It is not that we have much choice. The acreages and calm shorelines which are prerequisites of large resort type developments are only available on the west coast.

Last week, officials of the Government met with farmers who own or lease land in the Buccament area to inform them that the land was being sold for hotel development, and they would have to give up their holdings. The investors propose to build 109 upscale cabanas and about 70 apartments of the same quality, just in time for World Cup 2007. The reaction by the farmers was swift and emotional. Some threatened violence, others said they were willing to die for the land.

Their pain is nothing new. It is a scenario replayed through the years, here in St.Vincent and the Grenadines and around the world whenever “development” projects need to be implemented. The diversity of human values both between and within societies guarantees that issues of land use will never be free from conflict. In most instances, the clash occurs between those who will be directly, and often adversely, affected by proposed developments, and those who stand to gain economically from them.

The farmers see their livelihood being taken away from them. Though extreme, their reaction was understandable. It is unfortunate that advertisements marketing the Buccament development overseas began before Government had a chance to let the farmers know of their plans for the area.

With time, we are confident that these farmers, like those who farmed at Belle Isle, and the residents of Argyle, will recognize that their sacrifice is for the national good. During the construction phase, it is estimated that 300 to 400 persons will be employed. When fully operational, the investors say that 300 persons will receive full time employment at the facility.

Every effort should be made, however, to include suitable replacement parcels of land in the compensation package being worked out for the farmers. Also, these lands should be made available without too much delay. The majority of these farmers are serious businesspeople who produce very high quality vegetables. They are fighting to maintain their independence and dignity.

At the same time, our planners need to make sure that farmers are not forced onto marginal, infertile lands or further into the hills, where they come dangerously close to the watershed areas, creating problems of a different kind. Our food security and water supply must never be compromised, and our citizens who choose to make their livelihood by farming must be given every encouragement to do so.