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EDITORIAL - Agriculture's case for credible land-use policy

Published:Wednesday | February 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Agriculture Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has more than a valid case for urging the administration to promulgate quickly the long talked about land-use policy, including those areas of the country that will be left for the sector of the economy he oversees.

Indeed, long before Dr Tufton assumed the agriculture portfolio, tension has existed over which land should be left for farming and what ought to be available for other sectors of the economy.

An example of such tension is looming on the Caymanas plains, just outside of Kingston, a traditional sugar cane-growing area. A fair bit of those lands have, in recent decades, been put under real estate. Some, though, is still being used by the sugar industry, a sector in which Dr Tufton has maintained faith despite Jamaica's loss of its preferential markets in Europe.

Sugar cane growth

Indeed, he has sold segments of the loss-making Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) to private investors and is still hawking the other bits. Policymakers, Dr Tufton included, sometimes justify Jamaica's continuance in sugar by pointing to reasonable performance of the privately owned sugar factories like Worthy Park Estates. Which brings us back to Dr Tufton's call for a land-use policy and the tension between agriculture and other segments of the economy.

Recently, one government agency leased lands on the Caymanas Plains to Worthy Park, which will allow the company to grow more sugar cane and increase the throughput at the factory. The result should be enhanced efficiency.

The problem, however, is that the lease is likely to be short-lived, for the investment and commerce minister, Mr Karl Samuda, has publicly claimed the land. He earmarked it for a mega freeport/commercial centre, to be financed by Chinese capital.

Mr Samuda, since his recent return from Beijing with Prime Minister Golding, has reiterated his intention to go ahead with the project. If this is so, Worthy Park will have to find lands elsewhere.

We make no statement on this potential conflict. It, however, underlines the need for a clear policy on how Jamaica will use its limited land space - just over 4,400 square miles - as well as the relevance of Dr Tufton's advocacy of agriculture as "a sustainable economic alternative".

For most of Jamaica's recent history, any such advocacy has been from a position of weakness. Agriculture became an increasingly marginal economic player, contributing less than eight per cent to GDP. It employed 200,000 people, but the overwhelming majority of these jobs were low-paid and unskilled.

Concentrated minds

Dr Tufton, however, is in a stronger position than his predecessors. The global economic crisis, plus the near collapse of mining and the weaknesses in other sectors of the economy, are helping to concentrate minds.

It is true that agriculture, over the last two years, has recovered from a low post-hurricane base, but the 20 per cent growth in last year's fourth quarter, in an economy in retreat, is not to be scoffed at. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that the country cannot continue to afford a food import bill of US$800 million.

There are, despite the naysayers, opportunities to be grasped in agriculture, agro-processing and for backward and forward linkages between agriculture and other sectors of the economy. But agriculture requires land.

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