August 7, 2009
A new initiative in agriculture


The launch of the $5.8 million Sustainable Agriculture Livelihood Project last week by the Government of St.Vincent and the Grenadines represents a most welcomed initiative in the field of agriculture. The decline in the fortunes of this most vital industry over the years, for reasons both external to us as well as of our own making, is perhaps the most disappointing economic feature of the last two decades.{{more}} It has reached the stage where even as we express concern about the availability and cost of food, there is a seeming fatalism that “agriculture is dying”.

In this context then, almost any initiative which smacks of hope is bound to receive a warm welcome. But we must also be on our guard not to repeat previous experiences of major hypes and enthusiastic launches which peter out in frustration and decline. Money is not the only ingredient of a successful programme. It is no easy task to stimulate the agricultural sector in any one of these Caribbean islands or to motivate young people in particular into developing the confidence that agriculture can be a rewarding career. The very age structure of the farming sector speaks for itself as do all the statistics about declining acreages, number of persons involved and quantity and value of products.

One common complaint is that of the constantly rising cost of inputs – fertilizer, seeds etc. It must not be lost on us that these are by and large mainly imports, subject to ever-rising increases. Connected with this is the fact that this is an area where giant multinationals exert a stranglehold, making us ever more dependent on them even for the seeds we plant. Farmers will therefore be elated to hear that some form of relief, in the form of a subsidy on fertilizer, reducing the cost to the farmer from over $100 per sack to an announced $55, will be forthcoming under the programme. This is positive but the input problem is an ongoing one and farmers will be anxious to hear of the sustainability of the initiative.

An important aspect of the overall project is what is called the “alternative livelihood” approach. It is no secret that marijuana production and trade represent a primary source of income for a significant section of the rural population. It will be a major challenge to provide a rewarding alternative such as the project seeks to do. This will involve not just access to land via the Land Bank, but a whole range of support measures a well. It will demand almost instant successes, if one is to lure those attracted by the illegal ganja trade. Bureaucratic governmental and other official structures, mechanisms and attitudes will have to be reworked and honed to suit the challenges as they present themselves. If not, frustration and negativism can easily set in and develop.

This is also the case where the wider agricultural sector is concerned. How can we use this new injection of funds to stimulate the sector, to bring renewed hope and enthusiasm and, above all, to make the necessary linkages, both within the sector itself and with other economic and social sectors. As we move closer to general Elections, there is always a danger of political expediency and shortsightedness taking preference over longer-term but more sustainable approaches and objectives. In small countries like ours, that temptation is great indeed. We must be honest in acknowledging such dangers and try to head them off by engaging in collaborative approaches to avoid their pitfalls.

At international, regional and national levels, much has been said about addressing the food needs of the local population by the production of healthy, wholesome local foods of the quality required to satisfy nutritional needs and in the quantities that would make it cost-effective. That is an enormous task not just for the government or the Ministry of Agriculture, but calls for a collaborative across-the board approach involving farming and fishing organizations, agro-processors, marketers and financiers too.

Finally, let us express our heartfelt thanks to the Government and People of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for their selfless contribution towards this endeavour. May we strive to make their generous gesture a rewarding, impacting and lasting one.