Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Coconut growers concerned about their $4b shares

Published:Wednesday | March 1, 2017 | 3:00 AMChristopher Serju
Granville Marsh (centre) and Frank Phipps, QC (right), directors of the Coconut Industry Board, seem a bit puzzled as they field a question from a member during the recent meeting of coconut growers from St Mary at the Anglican Church hall in Port Maria. In the background is plant pathologist Dr Wayne Myrie, who works with the board.

Plans by registered coconut growers to acquire the more than 1,000-acre Water Valley property in St Mary and establish an integrated coconut processing plant, seed garden and nursery, among other facilities, have been stalled by the delay in promulgation of the Jamaica Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA), an umbrella organisation which will replace individual crop commodity boards.

The farmers, who are all members of the Coconut Industry Board, have presented their strategic plan to Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Karl Samuda, and are awaiting his signature to move forward with the programme for growing the industry, with a focus on value-added products such as virgin coconut oil, dessicated coconut, with an eye on the export market.

"We want the minister of agriculture to sign the letter to let us proceed because he has been holding back a little bit," Granville Marsh, a director of the coconut board, told The Gleaner last week. However, this is not likely to happen any time soon, according to the agriculture minister.

 

BOARDS ARE HISTORY

 

"All these plans that the coconut board is making must be against the background of the commencement of the JACRA, which was passed in both houses (of Parliament) and is now before the governor general for his assent," Samuda told The Gleaner.

"When that comes into being, which is any day now, all those things you hear about boards are done, finished. Commodity boards are history. So everything then will be based on the regulatory mechanisms under JACRA, and at that time I have to appoint a board to run JACRA."

He continued: "We have no fundamental disagreement with the acquisition of Water Valley ... but it would not be at this stage prudent to engage a process on the strength of a management structure that would no longer obtain in a matter of weeks. So that when JACRA comes into force, anything to do with the development of the Coconut Industry Board, any decision, will reside in the minister, and that's me. I want to be quite satisfied that we have looked at it carefully and that it will in no way compromise what is planned under JACRA, moving forward."

Whenever JACRA comes into law, it will take over the regulatory aspect of all crop commodity boards - coconut, citrus, banana, cocoa, coffee, et al. In the case of coconut, the commercial aspects of the operations will fall to the new entity representing all registered coconut growers across the island - Coconut Growers Industry Board. However, with the Coconut Industry Control Act, 1945 and Coconut Industry Control Regulations yet to be repealed, there is concern among growers as to what will happen with their shares, now valued at more than $4 billion, as well as the assets of the board.

... Growers fear Gov't will raid coffers

Coconut growers fear that the State, through agriculture minister Karl Samuda, will renew efforts to raid the coconut board's coffers of at least $2 billion, which it attempted to do under the current administration and following in the steps of Dr Peter Phillips, who served as finance minister under the last People's National Party's tenure.

For this reason, the coconut board has embarked on a series of meeting with growers across the island to make them aware of the pending legal changes, as well as the potential threats to their earnings, despite the fact that the government has backed off, at least for the time being.

During the first meeting at the Anglican Church hall in Port Maria, St Mary, last week, the growers agreed to help the government out of its financial bind by acquiring the Water Valley property, as well as taking some of the government's non-performing assets.

Frank Phipps, QC, one of five directors appointed by the growers to the nine-member board, used the occasion to articulate their position.

"What we have proposed is that we will be able to buy some of the assets that they are disposing of at a good price. We are in the business of development, so if they have assets that we can acquire to advance the coconut industry we will find ways to acquire them, but don't touch the shares!" declared Phipps.

"If they believe they want to get those shares then they will have to go to court. We are in possession of the shares. Whoever wants to take it must take action. They go to court and although we will not seek a battle, we are ready to defend what we know is right. So neither morally nor legally does any person outside of the coconut industry has any claim on any of those shares."

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com