Tue | May 23, 2017

Roger will be missed

Published:Monday | September 1, 2014 | 9:00 AM
Roger Clarke making a point during his Budget presentation in Parliament in 2012.-File

I REMEMBER in 2012, after I used this column to chastise him for cutting the budget of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) by 67 per cent, Roger Clarke, just before Parliament was called to order, shouted from the Chambers, "What kind of foolishness you write?"

He continued by asking if I could not have called him to ask questions before penning the article.

Clarke would later ensure that the records, while reflecting a cut in the line figure for RADA, bore out the fact that the funds were transferred to deal with farm roads.

Our last conversation was on Sunday, August 10, when I had assigned Christopher Serju to interview him about his recovery from back surgery. Having been in the firing line of Gleaner editorials so often, Clarke demanded to speak with the editor on duty. I was that man. During a conversation that lasted some 15 minutes, Clarke made it clear to me that he thought he had been unfairly targeted.

"If I walk on water, you say it's because I cannot swim," Clarke said, while making it clear he had no intentions of leaving Parliament any time soon. But before that, he fired an uppercut at the newspaper for reporting he would be out of office for nine months.

"You all setting up to say is abortion me go do," Clarke said.

Clarke is not one to lose his cool - at least not very often. The only time I recall him doing so was in early 2008 when Robert Montague, then a state minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, used unparliamentary language at him.

South West Clarendon Member of Parliament Noel Arscott had asked Agriculture Minister Dr Christopher Tufton about plans to deal with farm theft. Tufton replied that a receipt-book system implemented by Clarke, when he was minister, had failed. Clarke proceeded to explain why it had failed, but the House descended into chaos.

"You are dishonest! ... Dishonest! ... You told the country it could work and you knew it could not. You are dishonest!" Montague shouted at Clarke.

In Clarke's favourite word, he was flabbergasted.

"Who is dishonest? Who you calling dishonest? Don't do that! Don't do that! Don't do that! You don't call me dishonest!"

Montague initially refused to apologise, saying that he represented his Western St Mary constituency with "enthusiasm", but when Prime Minister Bruce Golding intervened, Montague withdrew his statement.

Clarke served as agriculture minister from 1998 to 2007, and then from 2012 to the time of his death. On his sickbed, Clarke had declared that he knew agriculture inside out.

transformation of sector questioned

But people like J.C. Hutchinson, the opposition spokesman on agriculture, would point to data contained in the Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica and say he was perhaps not as transformational as he should have been.

An examination of those documents, published by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, would show that agriculture did not experience a boom under Clarke as minister. For instance, domestic production of livestock stood at 63,321 tonnes in 1998 when he became minister. By 2004, it slipped to 52,379 tonnes, and remained on a downward spiral ever since, closing 2013 at 20,790 tonnes.

Milk production was 25 million litres in 1998 and fell to 14 million litres by the time he handed the baton to Tufton in 2007. Jamaica was producing 12.3 million litres at the end of 2013 with Clarke as minister.

Vegetable production in 1998 was 148,289 tonnes, It went as high as 171,827 tonnes in 2003, but by 2007, it fell to 149,173 tonnes. In his second coming as minister, Clarke found vegetable production at 224,131 tonnes and increased it to 233,226 by the end of 2013.

In terms of traditional export crops, Clarke found banana production at 62,338 tonnes in 1998, but never managed to increase its yield. By 2007, Jamaica was producing 17,473 tonnes of banana for exports. It went up to 53,649 in 2010 and then declined to 37,211 by 2013.

Coffee production was at 16,727 tonnes in 1998 and fell to 15,117 in 2007 and finished 2013 under 7,000 tonnes.

Cocoa production also declined under Clarke's watch, moving from 4,167 tonnes in 1998 to as low as 550 tonnes in 2005. It then increased to 1,915 tonnes in 2007, 1,393 tonnes in 2012, before slipping to 997 tonnes in 2013.

Crops such as ginger, onion and Irish potatoes have experienced growth under Clarke as minister, and his embrace of the agro parks as a strategy to enhance food security will be of tremendous benefit to the country.

Clarke himself has said that "agriculture is not an easy portfolio", even while acknowledging that it "is going to be depended upon in a significant way, if we are to grow our way out of our predicament".

Truth be told, however, much of the failure of the agricultural sector is not necessarily a result of poor leadership. Issues relating to climate - hurricanes and droughts — access to financing, and irrigation have been major obstacles to the expansion of the sector.

a fitting tribute to clarke

One hopes that not long from now, a researcher will find it attractive enough to thoroughly examine the reasons for the underperformance of the agricultural sector. Clarke would appreciate such a study, especially if it took into consideration all possible factors which affect the sector.

A fitting tribute to Clarke would be to have this study placed before the Economy and Production Committee of Parliament for consideration and action.

Going forward, however, it will be hard to imagine covering Parliament without Roger in the House. Not only is his sharp wit and dry sense of humour something to behold, but his ability to think on his feet during debates was a rare talent. He will be missed.

Email feedback to thegavel@gleanerjm.com.