Tue | Apr 7, 2020

Editorial | Now that Mr Shaw has found his voice

Published:Monday | September 16, 2019 | 12:28 AM
Audley Shaw

Audley Shaw seems to have rediscovered his voice and with it, a remembrance that agriculture is part of his ministerial portfolio. Many people will be happy – if it lasts and he sustains his advocacy.

Last week, Mr Shaw, who is also the minister of industry and commerce, launched a robust defence of farmers and attacked the bureaucracy, corruption and incompetence, some of it within his ministry, that often work against their interest. What particularly drew Mr Shaw’s ire was the response of the Government’s Plant Quarantine Division, for which he is responsible, to the onset of frosty pod disease in Jamaica. The condition affects cocoa trees and is a threat to the industry.

According to the minister, the approach to the problem by the agency’s staff is to chop down, or chop away, 90 per cent of cocoa trees. It could take such trees up to five years to recover. However, in Colombia, where the frosty pod is also present, their successful solution has been to trim trees by 10 per cent and, thereafter, closely monitor the disease.

“I have ordered that they stop chopping down 90 per cent of the cocoa trees,” Mr Shaw told journalists. “… I ordered the quarantine division to stop it and go and learn … what they are doing in Colombia.”

At the same session, Mr Shaw complained about people in authority who siphoned some of the harvest from a potato growers’ collective for sale, for their personal benefit. He also ranted against the cost for export licences charged by the regulatory body for agricultural commodities.

Like the farmers present for Mr Shaw’s battle charge, we, too, are excited at his renewed passion for agriculture and its potential for contributing substantially to Jamaica’s development. Our challenge to Mr Shaw, in this regard, is that he now become an outspoken advocate for the preservation of agricultural lands, including the fertile plains of St Catherine. Among his first tasks must be to shift course and lobby against Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ plan for a new city on the Bernard Lodge lands.

Bernard Lodge is a 29,000-acre former sugar plantation, bits of which have been lopped off, unfortunately without significant outcry, for housing projects. What the Holness administration now plans to do is, in scale, qualitatively different from the developments of the past.

The idea is to encroach on up to 7,000 acres of the property, of which the lion’s portion will accommodate 17,000 homes, factories, shops, other commercial buildings, and hard infrastructure. It is bad enough that the availability of arable land has dwindled rapidly over the last half-century. What’s worse is that what is now being gobbled up and placed under concrete is the country’s “most fertile” and “Class 1” soils, according to the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency.

The broader context

There is also a broader context to this matter. Jamaica annually spends around U$900 million importing food, which many experts say could, with the right inducements, be reduced by between a quarter and a third. Moreover, the science from global warming and climate change suggests that agricultural yields, in the not-far future, are likely to fall by up to 30 per cent. All things being equal, it will require 30 per cent more land to produce the same amount of food.

All of this should give impetus to Mr Holness’ declared commitment to placing Jamaica on a path to food security. But putting the best lands under real estate and foreclosing their use for agriculture isn’t compatible with that policy, a point we expected Mr Shaw to make. He, however, has in the past defended the Bernard Lodge city as part of a strategy of building “a new Jamaica”.

The minister was in his cognitively rational voice last week, which we hope was a permanent rediscovery rather than a fleeting blip. He must now recognise that the Bernard Lodge city is bad policy, and say so. There is much marginal land in Jamaica, including not far from Bernard Lodge, on which new cities can be built.