Christopher Serju, Contributor
IN MY efforts to get statistics on the rate of arrests and convictions relating to praedial larceny cases, a very senior police officer informed me that because it is not considered a serious crime, statistics might not be readily available.
Having called the office of the Police Commissioner, a polite woman who could not provide the information directed me to try the Constabulary Communication Network, but I have still not been able to get the data. This I interpret as the scant regard with which the police, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and other state agencies treat an issue which has, for decades, driven many farmers to poverty and others very close to full-time occupancy at the Bellevue Hospital.
This newspaper in its New Year's edition highlighted the fact that while there was a decline in murders, shootings and robberies, rape and larceny were the only two categories of serious crime which saw an increase. Nowhere in the report, based on police statistics, is there any mention of praedial larceny, the value of which has been conservatively estimated at $5 billion each year.
This figure does not even begin to speak to the true value of this crime category, since the valuation usually speaks to the price of the animals/produce lost, but does not include future earnings. Then there is the additional cost of reinforcing the fence or other area of the farm damaged by the thieves while making their illicit entry/exit during execution of their crime. Put a cost on the time lost making the report to the police station and burying/burning entrails, in the case of livestock slaughtered, and we begin to get closer to the true value of the loss.
And while the financial loss to the farmer is the immediate concern, there can be no doubt that with stolen farm produce and meat getting into the legal trade, public health is at risk of being compromised. In the case of vegetables, most times the affected farmer issues a warning advising the crop was sprayed with a potentially toxic chemical and consumers are urged to exercise caution.
Public-health standards dictate that animals for slaughter should be rested for at least 24 hours prior and the carcass drained, eviscerated (gutted), dissected and chilled in a prescribed manner, in order to maintain wholesomeness of the meat. When a praedial larcenist hastily guts an animal, throws the carcass into a dirty truck or van to be transported some 30 miles away, where it enters the food chain, there is no adherence to food-safety measures.
Last Friday marked two years since United States President Barack Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA) which will force Jamaican exporters of fresh and packaged farm produce to that country to overhaul their manufacturing and distribution processes to meet more stringently rigorous and exacting new bio-security standards.
By failing to institute traceability measures which would allow for tracking every step of the food/meat supply chain, the Government is condemning the local population to numerous health risks, while meeting the FSMA dictates which will ensure that food destined for the American market is grown, prepared and distributed under the most exacting standards.
In 1981 the value of farm produce lost to thieves was valued at $36 million and eight years later had almost doubled to $70 million, with agriculture minister A.U. Belinfanti in 1960 referring to the perpetrators as human rats. Governor General Sir Patrick Allen raised their profile at last year's Denbigh show, describing the farm thieves as human vultures.
None of these descriptions, however accurate, capture the profile of the modern farm-produce thief. Praedial larceny is now such an organised multibillion industry that it would make sound economic sense for a thief to retain a defence attorney before embarking on a cattle-stealing venture. By the time of his fourth offence if caught, he would be well ahead of the game and could afford to pay the measly fines, without any financial fallout. After this, he/she might choose to diversify operations by switching to stealing some pond fish, or a ready-to-reap crop of cassava - harvesting a million dollar windfall in one night, from someone else's months of sweat.
The recent one-night haul of 32 heads of cattle being stolen from a farm in western Jamaica generated news bytes and occupied lots of newspaper column inches but the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries was unable to offer any hope to the country's farmers that it had a plan to address this ongoing scourge.
More than three years after establishing the office of Praedial Larceny Prevention Coordinator, with retired ACP Reggie Grant succeeding retired Jamaica Defence Force officer Lieutenant Colonel Paul Dunn, Government has very little to show by way of progress in the fight against praedial larceny, for the ongoing expenditure associated with this office.
Meanwhile, ACP Grant has divulged a raft of plans to be unfurled including formation of a special police squad to focus on praedial larceny but while all this is happening, farmers are losing their livelihoods and hope in the system. With all its plans in the pipeline, the State is ignorant of the fact that for farmers this is a matter of life and death; tilling the soil and raising livestock is how they make a living and without it they and their families have nothing.
Ministry not advertising
With Crime Stop having J$1 million to pay out for information leading to the arrest of persons involved in the theft of farm produce, manager Prudence Gentles is less than pleased with the ministry's lack of action. Not one cent has been paid out for information on theft of farm produce and the much touted public-awareness campaign is mired in planning, two years after the money was made available.
"It has not got any better, sir, because the ministry has not been advertising and I find that without the ministry willing to put money into advertising it or pushing it, we are not going to get any further with it," she admitted.
In speaking with a livestock farmer from Nightingale Grove, a St Catherine community under siege by livestock thieves especially, he admitted: "Nothing has changed. This thing (praedial larceny) has only got worse". He went on to explain that having forced many large and medium-size farmers out of business, the thieves have now begun to unleash their brand of terrorism on those who have only a few animals and some no more than one.
He recounted the recent case of a man who tied his two cows to the house before retiring to bed for the night. Next morning he awoke to the grisly sight of the animals' entrails; they had been slaughtered on the very spot they were tethered. Anecdotal tales such as this are replete across the island, with most going unreported as farmers are fed up with the failure of the police to come up with strategies to thwart these thieves who strike at night when most law-abiding people are in bed.
There has never been a shortage of recommendations or initiatives on praedial larceny and I would venture that we, in fact, suffer from an overdose of these. It is the lack of effective measures, with the penalties and paltry fines in place serving as more of an incentive than a deterrent for potential thieves, which ensure that praedial larceny flourishes.
Government's failure at curbing this 'petty' crime or finding a formula of redress for those wronged is fuelling a storm of indignation that will in all likelihood soon trigger a wave of vigilante justice. The warning signs are there, as with the State's inactivity morphing into total paralysis, farmers are now more than ever feeling frustrated, helpless and abandoned.
A popular Jamaican saying reminds us that if you carry the bucket too often to the well, one day the bottom will fall out; our farmers are at this crossroads.
Many have lost faith, not only in the police force but as well the legal and judiciary systems which fail to recognise the magnitude and far-reaching impact of this scourge.
Christopher Serju is a senior writer on agriculture. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com