Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Prepared to battle - Coconut farmers vow to fight Gov't over Seprod shares

Published:Sunday | May 8, 2016 | 5:00 AMErica Virtue
Agriculture Minister Karl Samuda (right) addresses coconut growers after the annual general meeting of the Coconut Industry Board yesterday.

Coconut farmer and member of the Coconut Industry Board (CIB) A.A. Bobby Pottinger's uncompromising stance yesterday calmed militant farmers at the board's annual general meeting at the Jamaica Conference Centre.

The farmers were upset over indications by the Government that it plans to sell 122.5 million or 75 per cent of the 163.42 million shares held in Seprod by the CIB.

That was expected to put some $2 billion in the state coffers. But farmers are adamant that the shares are not the Government's to sell and warned that they would be prepared to take legal action against the directors of the CIB if they sale took place.

Pottinger, one of five growers representatives on the CIB, told the meeting that, "We uncompromisingly will not bow to any pressure or effort to hand over any money to Government, because it is not ours to give."

Agriculture Minister Karl Samuda also managed to lower the temperature at the meeting as he played the patriotism card.

"But this is about Jamaica. Any decision we take has to be about Jamaica. In everything we do we must remember that we are Jamaicans first. No compromise. So if we hold our belts, tighten our belts, do whatever we have to do, it must be for a better way. For a better future," said Samuda.

There has been unease between CIB and Government since former finance minister Dr Peter Phillips reopened old wounds when he resurrected a plan first presented by Dr Omar Davies in 2002 to sell the shares in Seprod.

Board members say as finance minister, Davies went to the CIB seeking to sell the shares to support his spending plans.

But after the ownership structure was outlined he reportedly backed off.

This was dropped until Phillips repeated the plan shortly before the government was changed.

In March, the new administration signalled to the CIB that it also intended to go through with the Phillips plan.

However, the five farmers' representatives on the board rejected this, and with only four of the board members, including the chairman, appointed by the Government, it is unlikely to get approval.

Stephen Black, one of the country's largest coconut farmers, told The Sunday Gleaner they are prepared for a long, bloody duel to prevent the sale of the shares.

"First of all, it is not our money to give away. All growers are acting as one, because we know the shares belong to the farmers. We are the farmers' representatives and our duty is to take care of the shares to make sure it is spent properly and make money for the betterment and strengthening of the industry," said Black.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com