Fri | Oct 20, 2017

Farmers at Caymanas cultivating land without lease

Published:Wednesday | October 12, 2016 | 12:00 AMEdmond Campbell

A senior executive from the Factories Corporation of Jamaica (FCJ) yesterday struggled to explain to a parliamentary committee how the entity allowed farmers to cultivate cane on hundreds of acres of land at Caymanas in St Catherine for years without paying a cent for lease.

This led the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament to ask permanent secretary in the super Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, Audrey Sewell, to carry out a full investigation into the matter.

The revelation was made yesterday by acting managing director of the FCJ, Kenneth Rowe, who also stunned PAC members when he divulged that after eight years of tinkering with plans to develop the much-talked-about Caymanas Economic Zone, a feasibility study was just now being done by a special enterprise team, appointed by Cabinet two weeks ago, to determine the viability of the project.

Members of the PAC expressed shock yesterday that despite making a deposit of $90 million to acquire the Caymanas lands from the Urban Development Corporation, the FCJ has not sought to recover any money from the current occupiers who produce sugar cane.

There were testy exchanges at yesterday's PAC meeting between Rowe and controversial lawmaker Everald Warmington. After pressing Rowe for answers about the 200 acres of land now being used to cultivate sugar cane, Warmington continued: "Is the land captured?

Rowe hit back: "That's your interpretation, Sir."

Warmington: "Don't be rude!"

 

Unhealthy state of affairs

 

Chairman of the committee, Peter Phillips, intervened and also queried whether a public asset was being made available to a private operator free of cost.

"It is an unhealthy state of affairs," said Phillips, who was the former finance minister.

Sewell promised that the board and current management, which she said are "new to the situation", would carry out an investigation and provide answers to the committee.

Turning to the Caymanas Economic Zone, committee member Mikael Phillips castigated various administrations since 2009, which he said spent some $190 million on the project but, to date, have not produced any tangible results on their investment.

"It is disappointing that after eight years, we are nowhere near moving this project forward," he said.

Warmington supported his colleague as he insisted that the first order of business by any government should have been the commissioning of a feasibility study on the economic zone.

Peter Phillips, who said he wanted to steer clear of politics, said respective administrations have been "going around in circles collectively", noting that with such a long delay in implementing the project the "market is not going to wait for us - we are going to miss the opportunities we are seeking to exploit."

The committee was also told yesterday that plans to develop 100,000 square feet of factory space at Naggo Head in St Catherine have stalled.

Rowe told the committee that the project was facing financing problems, noting that the FCJ could not secure a government guarantee, as this would run counter to the Government's arrangement with the International Monetary Fund.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com