Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Sweetheart probe - RADA orders audit into farm benefits to minister’s partner’s company

Published:Tuesday | July 14, 2020 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson/Senior Staff Reporter
J.C. Hutchinson
Nigel Myrie

The Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) has ordered an audit of benefits given to farmers at the Holland Estate amid concerns about conflicts of interest involving some of its officials and the private company managing the state-owned property.

The Opposition People’s National Party has also called for the Integrity Commission to probe the selection of Holland Producers Limited. It also wants a halt to any lease arrangements.

The developments follow a Sunday Gleaner report that raised questions about the company’s selection, while revealing that Lola Marshall-Williams, a director and shareholder, is the partner of J.C. Hutchinson, a minister in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries (MICAF). The couple share a child.

MICAF oversees Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) Holdings, which gave possession of the lands to Holland Producers, and RADA, whose board includes Marshall-Williams.

Mark Lee, another director of Holland Producers, is the deputy parish manager of RADA, St Elizabeth. Marshall-Williams is the chairperson of the RADA St Elizabeth Parish Advisory Board.

Chairman of RADA, Nigel Myrie, who ordered the internal audit, said the authority wants to determine “how benefits were distributed to candidates in Holland”.

He did not give a deadline for the audit’s completion. The authority’s next board meeting is scheduled for August.

Meanwhile, labelling the issue as a “massive land grab”, Opposition Spokesman on Agriculture Victor Wright has alleged that the arrangements put Holland Producers at a “disproportionate advantage over other interests” and “cannot be allowed to stand”.

“The process of arriving at the lease arrangement is exceptionally troubling, as it closely resembles the recent Holywell land scandal,” he added, referencing the case in which government minister Daryl Vaz was stripped of the environmental portfolio a week after it emerged that he had sought a lease to build a cabin on protected lands within the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, a World Heritage Site.

It is not clear how many small farmers at Holland have received RADA benefits, although Marshall-Williams has told The Gleaner that the company has allowed more than 100 farmers to occupy lands of up to 20 acres.

Beyond that, the arrangement with the small farmers is also not very clear.

RADA is the main vehicle through which the Government provides technical support to farmers. It also distributes farming inputs.

The SCJ gave Holland Producers control of the property in July 2019 after J. Wray & Nephew formally returned the lands it had leased for sugar production.

However, the process that led to Holland’s selection is unclear, as the SCJ, which manages the sugar lands, said it received a recommendation from MICAF to give possession to Holland Producers.

“I acted on the advice of MICAF,” insisted Joseph Shoucair, SCJ managing director, who added that there was no tender process and that Holland was granted its request to use the lands for 12 months to determine whether it wanted to enter a formal lease arrangement.

However, Shoucair’s account contradicts the version from Hutchinson, who told The Gleaner that Holland Producers “weren’t recommended by anybody” and that the company applied directly to the SCJ.

Pressed on who made the recommendation, Shoucair said: “I would rather not say.”

Holland was not required to make any financial commitment over the 12-month period which ended on June 30, 2020.

Just about 1,400 acres of the property is expected to be used by Holland Producers. Hutchinson is pushing for the establishment of Holland as an agro-economic zone. RADA, the National Irrigation Commission, and the Agro-Investment Corporation are supporting the farmers there.

Marshall-Williams has argued that the company represents an amalgam of community interests that sought to ensure the property did not fall into the hands of Big Business.

“If we did not step up to the plate and decide to go for it, the place would be overrun by wild cattle, squatters, and the cane would be running wild and would be a haven for unscrupulous activity,” she said.

Holland Producers, whose third director is Kenneth Daley, said it was proceeding to enter a formal lease arrangement with the SCJ.

Holland Estate is located in the St Elizabeth North Western constituency that Hutchinson represents in Parliament for the Jamaica Labour Party. Marshall-Williams is the party’s constituency liaison officer to the Electoral Office of Jamaica.

MICAF is yet to make any public comment on the issue.