NEWLY-ELECTED PRESIDENT of the People's National Party and Prime Minister-designate, Portia Simpson Miller, who cited rural development as a key plank in her campaign platform, has her work cut out for her. This is not the first time that a Prime Minister would be taking direct personal interest in agriculture and rural development. Michael Manley, at one stage, went so far as to assign himself the agriculture portfolio. Prime ministerial attention, in that instance, did not last long enough to produce the radical transformation of the sector and the rural development promised.
With the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) marking its 15th anniversary this year, the time is opportune for a review of the country's agriculture sector and the agency's contribution to its development.
RADA was established early in the life of this administration with Horace Clarke as Minister of Agriculture. The agency, which absorbed the old extension service arm of the Ministry of Agriculture, was set up to reflect a renewed focus on comprehensive rural development with agriculture as a key component. Fifteen years is a long enough time to review what progress has been made in this direction.
RADA has not lived up to expectations. Over its entire period of existence, agriculture has seen its share of contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declining. Part of this is, of course, due to the rise of newer sectors of the economy. But much of the decline has been due to problems in the sector itself. Virtually all traditional crops are in decline and non-traditionals remain largely at the sample level.
As our own focus on the agriculture sector is revealing, several of the more critical problems which the sector faces are caused, or at least influenced, by bureaucratic bungling of state agencies. The two privately owned sugar companies, Appleton and Worthy Park, for example, have managed to operate profitably while the state-owned Sugar Company of Jamaica has not, at a time when preferential access to the EU/UK market is being wound up.
Both estates want to purchase more land to raise their sugar output, thus lowering costs. Appleton is reporting years' long frustration in acquiring promised Government land which is out of cane or is inefficiently cultivated. One would think that, in light of the almost fatal problems faced by the industry, the land purchase deal by a successful company would be put on the fast track. Until viable alternatives emerge, sugar is absolutely vital for a modicum of development across much of rural Jamaica.
The new Prime Minister need not make herself Minister of Agriculture as did Michael Manley. What she will need to do with some urgency is to integrate and facilitate the efficient operations and further reach of agencies like RADA and to pull the many bureaucratic roadblocks to entrepreneurship and local initiative driving rural development.
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