Singing the blues in Blue Mountain - Coffee farmers say new owners taking them back to slavery, company says not true
Wallenford Coffee Company (WCC) is defending the new arrangements it is implementing for farmer on leased lands in rural St Andrew despite how howls of protests from the farmers.
Mark McIntosh, director of Wallenford says the company's move to evict farmers who have not accepted the lease agreement is consistent with standard business practices.
For decades the farmers have cultivated coffee on lands now acquired by AIC International Investment Limited, as part of the divestment deal in 2013.
According to the farmers since the government divested its commercial coffee operation to AIC which operates through Wallenford, they have been reduced to a state of "modern day slavery" as the new lease agreement is onerous, restrictive and deplorable.
"Call it slavery, call is share cropping, where we produce a crop and we are supposed to sell the crop to a person, determined by that person, and we should not ... sell it to anybody else," said Donald Salmon, president of the Jamaica Coffee Growers Association, during a Gleaner Editors; Forum last Wednesday.
"Farmers had no input in the lease they want to give to us. We were just told that this is the new lease and you must sign and if you don't sign you will be kicked off the land and there is no compensation for farmers who have been on the land for years," added Salmon.
He noted that some of the farmers who produce Jamaica's world famous Blue Mountain coffee, have refused to ink a deal with the company which also operates the Mavis Bank Coffee Factory and at least two have been taken to court by Wallenford which has accused them of being squatters.
But McIntosh told The Sunday Gleaner that 193 of some 240 farmers have signed the lease agreement as he argued that those holding out are trouble makers.
This was rejected by Salmon and the other coffee grower who travelled to The Gleaner's North Street office last Wednesday. They claimed that their neighbours signed the lease agreements under duress.
The farmers also accused Wallenford of cartelisation as they pointed to a section of the proposed lease document.
"For the avoidance of doubt, WCC requires that all cherry coffee produced on the farm be sold to us, and a relevant Sale and Purchase Agreement will be part of the documentation when the lease is completed," said Wallenford in the lease agreement.
The farmers argued that this clause is unfair as they are being backed into a corner with little say to whom they sell the beans and the price they get.
But McIntosh, who has responsibility for the day-to-day operations of Wallenford Coffee Company dismissed this as baseless.
He said the revenue potential from beans cultivated in the Blue Mountain region has been significantly enhanced since and by the entry of AIC International Investment Limited into the market.
McIntosh also rubbished the claims of cartelisation. "Cartelisation would mean that all of the coffee companies are colluding and setting prices and how we treat the farmers. The competition among coffee producers in Jamaica is more intense than I've seen in any other industry.
"Hence the farmers are now getting three or four times the price per box that they were getting when we just showed up in the industry. If anything there is an increase in competition, not a decrease. I think the average price right now is probably $9,000 per box, when we started it was $3,400 per box, so there is an increase in competition all benefiting the farmers," said McIntosh who missed the Editors' Forum because of what he said were business commitments.
He further defended the company's decision to take legal action against the farmers who have refused to sign the lease document.
"What else would you do if somebody was occupying your house and you want them to sign your lease? If they don't sign the lease then you don't have no house. I don't think that's duress, I think that might be under difficult circumstances but duress would mean that I went to them with a gun and put it them head and say sign the lease.
"No, they'll say it's under duress because they have no other land. You're occupying the land, I have the option to remove you or regularise you. I've chosen to give you the chance to regularise yourself if you choose to sign the lease. How is that duress?"
McIntosh insisted that denying farmers the option to sell their coffee elsewhere is standard practise.
"That's normal for any crop in any country - sugar cane or whatever. You lease from a producer you sell to the producer."