Editorial | Mr Shaw’s viable embryo
Webster McPherson is cynical. Not unreasonably. He used to manage an orchard in Agualta Vale, St Mary, from where they used to export up to 80,000 boxes of mangoes weekly. Tropical fruits and other crops were also shipped from Belvedere Estate in St Thomas and Barnett Estate in Montego Bay, St James. That was in the 1980s and 1990s.
"Barnett is now Fairview Shopping Centre and Bogue Housing Scheme," Mr McPherson lamented at a recent public discussion on plans to revive Jamaica's agriculture sector. "All these were mango orchards in the 1990s. So, we are rediscovering the wheel, going around in circles."
Mr McPherson's mocking assessment of Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw's plan to divest thousands of acres of land on which sugar cane was formerly grown is understandable. He has seen it before: large tracks of farmland acquired by, or from, the Government and subdivided for housing or commercial development - as is the intention at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine, where the Holness administration hopes to develop a new city.
Temper the scepticism
But Minister Shaw's overwrought presentation notwithstanding, we suggest a tempering of scepticism and urge the public to give his ideas a chance to work. Or, at least, credibly develop. For we see in Mr Shaw's proposal the embryo of a viable scheme.
Three things are of immediate and critical significance in the idea/project floated by Mr Shaw.
One is the apparent acceptance that modern commercial and export agriculture can't rest solely on inefficient, small-scale or peasant producers, although they may have a place in the second.
Second, as has already been noted, is that the lands he wants to put back into production, in the parishes of Trelawny, St Catherine and Clarendon, used to be rooted in sugar cane but are now idle because mills have been mothballed by their owners, who have allowed the lease for the lands to lapse.
While the Government continues to subsidise the transportation of sugar cane to factories for some farmers, there is in this scheme an acceptance of the folly of a headlong plunge back into an industry in which Jamaica has long been uncompetitive, except for when the country enjoyed preferential markets in Europe. "We know about sugar," he said. Maybe it is that commercial sugar production - on which, when it was in it, Government lost more than J$5 billion a year - will be allowed to run its course.
Third, the idea so far sketched by Mr Shaw is not about Government involving itself in an enterprise to grow and export mangoes, Sea Island cotton, castor beans and oil, and other crops. "We have hundreds of applications from farmers and companies who want to produce other things (rather than sugar cane)," he said.
That, as Mr Shaw said, is "good news", which can be kept that way if Government limits its role as facilitator and regulator and guards against, as happens time and again with sugar, moral hazard and mission creep. It does something for one group of troubled farmers and manufacturers on the presumption of saving jobs, only to discover that it owns most of the industry.
In its regulatory role, the Government has to be robust in its land-zoning arrangements, preventing the best agricultural lands from being used for other purposes. This is a matter on which Mr Shaw must be a vigorous advocate, including opposing the use of Barnard Lodge, part of a fertile plain, for the development of a city.
As facilitator, Mr Shaw should be tireless in ensuring market access for Jamaican products, that the research and development efforts of our universities and other agencies reach entrepreneurs, and that they operate in a competitive environment.