What new possibilities for agriculture post Soufriere eruptions?
Issues of food security have been under discussion at meetings of government, farming organisations and civil society entities for numerous years whether at the regional, hemispheric or international level.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in a 2017 publication titled ‘The future of food and agriculture, Trends and Challenges’, noted that “…global food security could be in jeopardy, due to mounting pressures on natural resources and to climate change, both of which threaten the sustainability of food systems at large”.
Many governments around the world are concerned about the need to sustainably feed their populations and reduce their dependence on imported produce and processed foods.
While St Vincent and the Grenadines can boast of having an abundance of some commodities, we have nevertheless seen our food import bill climb steadily.
At a ceremony on March 26 this year, Minister of Agriculture, Saboto Ceasar, revealed that the food import bill then stood at EC$200 million.
But, he also shared that there was a plan in place to see a reduction in this figure over time under a longer-term programme, with a first move being to slash the quantity of vegetables brought into the country.
Irish potatoes were identified as being among the first items that local farmers will be given support to produce.
With the severe damage to all aspects of plant agriculture caused by the violent eruptions of La Soufriere, both the plant (vegetables and tree crops), and animal sub-sectors took an awful beating with farmers who live and/or cultivate in the volcanic red zone confessing to having been brought to their knees. One farmer who cultivated at Rabacca Farms, commenting on the situation of farmers above the dry river, said they are in a precarious position, having lost all planting materials with the destruction of the nursery; with inches of ash covering their crops; having very little to no funds to start again; and not having feed for their animals.
The financial injection of funds by the government to support the farming sector is therefore critical to help in the recovery and should help farmers begin to get back on their feet. As we understand it, direct financial assistance to affected farmers will be disbursed from June 18 and other support such as provision of tractor services to help with ploughing, will begin from next week.
We acknowledge that farmers in the red zone communities of North Leeward and North Windward are only a percentage of the overall agricultural community, but they are a significant group who can provide the Ministry of Agriculture with the opportunity to fast track elements of its overall plan to reduce the food import bill and build a sustainable agriculture sector.
The provision of additional lands under the much touted land bank programme, can provide many who will not be able to return to their lands with the opportunity to remain in agriculture with guidance and hands-on support from technical staff of the Ministry. This is a good time to test some of the projections in the Ministry’s plan and will help determine where there are gaps which might need to be plugged.
The roll out of initiatives aimed at ensuring that there are markets for what is produced will, of necessity, need to also be fast tracked. But, whatever the projected outcomes, success will not be fully realized until the perennial and debilitating practice of praedial larceny is rigorously tackled. It is a strong deterrent to agricultural production right across the Caribbean and has caused some here to give up on even engaging in back yard gardening. So while the eruptions have brought severe pain to the agriculture sector, all is not lost and there are possibilities for restoring better.