"We must all collectively say enough is enough. We must send a strong signal to persons who reap what they do not sow. The time has come to crush this menace." That's an impressive sound bite from the lips of Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke as he addressed a praedial larceny sensitisation seminar on January 24, 2012.
But great sound bites have done nothing to diminish the pain of praedial larceny in this country. Recently news emerged of the theft of 32 heifers from a farm in Goodwin, St. James, Nubian goats snatched from the Elim Agriculture School in Clarendon and dozens of oranges stolen from the McConnell farm in St. Catherine.
Anyone who needs more evidence of how widespread and entrenched this practice has become will find plenty other examples in major farming communities throughout the length and breadth of Jamaica. Some incidents do not make the news but farmer's tales of woe are heart-rending. It is estimated that 200,000 Jamaican families are directly affected by praedial larceny. Nationally the island's food security is at risk for praedial thieves contribute to dampening the spirits of farmers and turning away potential investors in the sector.
Praedial larceny is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is believed that well-organised gangs armed with high-powered weapons are moving in to deny farmers of the fruits of their back-breaking, tedious labour. In 2011 an estimated $5 billion was lost to these predators who often strike at nights and on public holidays.
The receipt book system which requires that all registered farmers and vendors issue receipts for purchases of agricultural produce is not a deterrent to these thieves who appear to have no trouble in finding outlets for their loot. This is why some farmers have suggested that the fight against praedial criminals must include inspection of restaurants, markets, cook shops and supermarkets.
The million-dollar fund to reward informants who help to capture praedial thieves is either not properly promoted or is not enough of an incentive for witnesses to speak up. The result is that a thief can gather up 32 cows and cart them away without anyone seeing or hearing anything.
Advocate for the agricultural sector Senator Norman Grant has made a number of suggestions to tackle the menace including one that would see the thieves falling within the clutches of the Proceeds of Crime Act which would seek asset forfeiture to make restitution to the victims. There is even a Praedial Larceny Prevention Coordinator in the Ministry of Agriculture. Yet with all this, agricultural theft appears to be on the increase in most rural parishes.
Despite the importance of agriculture to the island as an employer and foreign exchange earner, successive Governments have railed against praedial theft but they have all failed to protect the farming community. Roger Clarke's recent hand-wringing is a good indication that he is all out of ideas. Anyone who is serious about farming knows that he cannot realistically look to government for protection. With more than 1,000 murders each year, multiple shootings and robberies, the police have their hands full.
So what really is the solution? It is compulsory that farmers invest in security measures such as hiring armed guards or installing expensive surveillance equipment and perimeter fencing. Are there other technologies that farmers could employ to ward off these criminals? And isn't the government obliged to waive duty on such equipment so that the farmers can protect themselves and get on with the job of producing?
With our economy in the doldrums and a shrinking workforce, now is exactly the time, to give farmers the assurance that the government has some answers to alleviate their pain. More than ever we need self-sufficiency and no other sector embraces this concept as well as the farming sector.
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