Thu | Oct 17, 2019

Editorial | Azan’s case against Bernard Lodge city

Published:Sunday | September 22, 2019 | 12:17 AM

Gassan Azan’s J$11-billion agricultural investment plan for the Bernard Lodge lands should, on the face of it, be welcomed and embraced. We hope for other projects of the type.

However, the Holness administration should not believe, or attempt to parley, the initiative as vindication of its policy to place large swathes of the former sugar estate under concrete, including the development of a new city, or, as Prime Minister Andrew Holness now prefers to refer to it, “a new township ... (that) will expand the Portmore development”.

Bernard Lodge, located on the St Catherine plains of Jamaica’s southern coast, constitutes 29,000 acres of what the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) describes as the island’s “most fertile” and “Class 1” soils. Unlike most of Jamaica’s arable lands, it is the home of aquifers and is serviced by a well-developed irrigation system.

But in recent years, little has been grown there. The near-collapse of Jamaica’s sugar industry ended the cultivation of cane at Bernard Lodge. Nothing, on a large scale, has emerged to take its place. Bits of the estate, like too much of Jamaica’s farmland, have been gobbled up by real-estate developers.

According to Mr Azan, he has, through purchases and leases, acquired 400 acres of land for his project, which will see the development of orchards, greenhouses, hydroponics and other forms of high-tech agriculture. The technology he employs will be available to surrounding farmers, some of whom will be invited to enter production agreements with his Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures Ltd.

There are in Mr Azan’s project echoes of the Government’s seemingly stalled agro-parks idea, or, perhaps more to the point, an initiative from nearly four decades ago when the Seaga administration facilitated the development of a modern, private sector-led, Israeli-operated farm at Parnassus, Clarendon, under the Agro-21 programme, named in honour of Jamaica’s 21st anniversary of Independence in 1983, the year the scheme was launched.

That Agro 21 ultimately failed had less to do with the efficacy of the idea than the fact that its promoter, Eli Tisona, was a drug-running, money-laundering mobster who replicated his scheme in Antigua and eventually served time in the USA. In the 36 years since Agro 21, there has been no large private investment in fruit and vegetable agriculture, but for those in sugar plantations and factories during the past decade, which have mostly gone belly up, losing billions of dollars.

EXPECT FARM TO BE PROFITABLE

Mr Azan expects that by the mid-2020s, his farm will yield upwards of 17,000 tonnes of pepper, tomatoes, lettuce and other crops annually and employ more than 1,000 persons. It will be able to supply Mr Azan’s MegaMart stores with fresh produce, as well as have the capacity to export. What is of potentially larger importance of this project, especially if it catalyses similar investments in agriculture, is the impact it can have on ensuring food security during a time of growing danger from climate change.

The best science suggests that in the absence of a significant slowdown in the rate of warming, agricultural yields will decline by up to 30 per cent. Without dramatic offsetting developments, it will require, all things being equal, 30 per cent more land to produce the same amount of food.

For Jamaica, where only 37 per cent of the land was deemed to be arable and less than half of that is now available for farming, the consequences, without aggressive action, could be catastrophic. The country’s food import bill, now in the region of US$900 million a year, could rise, and agriculture’s contribution of GDP, around seven per cent, could decline. The implications for the fiscal and balance of payments account are obvious.

The bottom line is that Jamaica’s best agricultural lands should be available for investors, who, like Mr Azan, can make major capital injections, as well as to the estimated 200,000 small farmers who make their living from the land but need support to enhance productivity. That, however, can’t happen if the best lands are foreclosed to agriculture by being planted in concrete, which will be the effect of the urbanisation of Bernard Lodge.

Mr Holness’ “new township”, which, depending on who is speaking when, will cover between 4,000 and 7,000 acres, envisions the construction of 17,000 homes, as well as commercial and recreational facilities and supporting infrastructure. It is not sufficient to argue that some of that land is earmarked for agriculture and agro-processing, when huge bits of it will be under houses instead of their construction being concentrated on marginal topography, of which there is plenty not far from Bernard Lodge.