Sun | Dec 4, 2016

Chasing our tails instead of catching farm thieves

Published:Sunday | March 15, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Kevin Francis will take the fight to farm thieves in Jamaica. But does he have enough to work with?

The increased allocation of $7.4 million that the Government has targeted to spend on the Praedial Larceny Prevention Programme in the 2015-1016 fiscal year has been misread in some quarters as a serious attempt by the State to finally tackle farm theft, which continues to wreak havoc on the lives and livelihoods of small farmers.

While this is a $1.7-million mark-up on the previous year's allocation of $5.7 million, it is nowhere near adequate to begin to make even a token down payment on the political will necessary to tackle the organised and very profitable business of praedial larceny.

Financial and other 'incentives' promised to the farming community in the recent Budget presentation make for good reading, only if one is unaware of the deep-rooted and long-standing issues that stymie the efforts of hard-working people committed to feeding their families and the nation.

The $83.5-million allocation to the Jamaica Dairy Development Board makes sense on the face of it, but how does one develop a sector that was ruined as a direct result of government import policy on powdered milk? Unlike poultry, where one can see substantial returns after six weeks, the cattle industry (beef and dairy) requires long-term, sustained and significant financial investment; someone should apprise the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries of this well-known fact.

The Government has also added the sweetener of $200 million in the Budget for production incentives to the "most vulnerable" small farmers, who will be provided with seedlings, spraying equipment, fertilisers, plant-protection chemicals, feed, and day-old chicks.

If farmers could be assured that the police would take seriously their reports about crops and livestock being stolen and that those caught stealing or in possession of the stolen property would be sent to prison, made to pay serious fines, or in some other way repay the victim, there would be no greater incentive for increased production and productivity.

"Investment in agriculture is crippled and retarded greatly by praedial larceny ... . The great thrust forward is unlikely to come without the signals of serious intent to stamp out this most awful scourge," declared Courtney Fletcher, president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS) at board meeting in March 1989. "The praedial thief demoralises the farmer and hinders development more than any other obstacle he faces in his farming enterprise, and the country cannot expect him to continue to produce under these circumstances."

Fletcher continued: "Of all the incentives for greater agricultural production, good marketing arrangements and a remunerative price are the greatest and most important. In this country, our aim must be self-sufficiency to rehabilitate and expand our export crops, that they may provide a higher percentage of our country's foreign exchange and to be a greater source of employment."

Fletcher, who was the longest-serving JAS president from 1974-93 was buried yesterday, having died at the age of 90. Twenty-six years after it was first reported, his summation of the causes, impact and recommendations for addressing farm theft remain spot-on and relevant.

At that meeting, he called for the reinstatement of the Praedial Larceny Prevention Act to legalise community action. His comments are most telling.

"This law may be modernised, modified and amended to fit our new circumstances, but it should be brought back as it gives specific legal powers to the community committees and make them functional."

It is conservatively estimated that Jamaican farmers lose in excess of $6 billion to thieves each year, but an area that does make the news but is in urgent need of attention is the potential negative impact of these meats and crops on public health.

Any public awareness campaign on praedial larceny must, as a matter of priority, also speak to the health risks associated with buying and consuming stolen foods. It must press home the message that the small price paid for those prime cuts of meat could come at a high cost.

So unless the new praedial larceny prevention coordinator, Deputy Superintendent of Police Kevin Francis, can articulate and actualise a structured and sustained approach to tackling farm theft, starting with catching the damn thieves in the first place, I believe the money used to staff and pay his team will prove to be another grand exercise in futility and substantial wastage of taxpayers' money.

After decades of patronising and paying lip service to small farmers, the agriculture sector must now empower its new front man, quasi-agriculture minister Derrick Kellier, to do something meaningful to protect the investment, lives and livelihood of small farmers.

In most cases of praedial larceny, the perpetrators are known both to the victims and police, yet the thieves remain free and continue to prosper, at the expense of hard-working, decent people whose parents tricked them, like mine did me, into believing that crime does not pay.

Time, and in particular the crime of praedial larceny, have proven that to be a damn lie. For if is true that crime does not pay, how can thieves continue to afford high-power rifles and ammunition, well-maintained trucks and employ a loyal cadre of societal misfits outfitted with the latest electronic communication devices to maintain and operate them?

 

HEIGHTS BY GREAT MEN

 

In fact, thanks to the unparalleled success of these merchants of the night, I now have an entirely different interpretation of the following words by American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, than I think he intended when they were written more than 100 years ago:

"The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but, they, while their companions slept, were toiling upwards in the night."

With apologies to this great wordsmith, I cannot help but think that those lyrics that have served to motivate millions of people across the world and which are from the book titled, ironically, 'I think, Good Poems for Hard Times, can now be misread, but appropriately so, as an ode to the success of Jamaica's enterprising and successful farm thieves.

On the issue of praedial larceny, more than enough time and money have been spent looking at what needs to be done. We know what needs to be done, and the time is long past to now finally start doing what needs to be done!

If only we could factor into that 2015-2016 fiscal budget a smidgen of political will, marinated in a 'tups' of common sense and sauteed with some accountability, with even a sprinkling of respect for small farmers thrown into the mix, I could begin to fantasise that finally our diligent farmers, especially, were being taken seriously, instead of for another long, arduous, backbreaking ride.

- Christopher Serju is an agriculture and rural affairs reporter. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com.