Daraine Luton, Senior Staff Reporter
THE DEVELOPMENT of agro-parks is being touted by the Government as a critical plank of the country's food-security plans.
Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke has declared that the country's food import bill is unacceptably high, and has vowed to use agro-parks to put a US$47 million dent in the deficit by 2015.
"We can't supplement US$1 billion in short order, so what we have done is we have targeted somewhere in the region of about US$300 million," Clarke told The Gleaner.
An agro-park is an agricultural development area equipped with the requisite infrastructure and facilities to facilitate integrated agricultural production along the value chain.
Under the agro-park programme, 8,000 acres of underutilised government lands are to be leased to private individuals for agricultural purposes.
Clarke said the Government has already identified private-sector input to the tune of $1.5 billion.
"The Government will put in the basic infrastructure, drainage, irrigation, extension, and we would assist in a substantial way to help in the marketing and packing houses, if necessary," Clarke said.
He added: "We are even in the process of establishing an abattoir for slaughtering ... for animals that are going to be produced on the agro-parks."
$2 million annual cost
The Government is to spend US$8 million over a three-year period, starting this fiscal year, on the programme. Government documents indicate that the budgetary implication for the project over three years is US$2 million per year.
The Parliament approved the spending of J$289.3 million this year, up from J$30 million last year to drive agriculture competitiveness.
Clarke told The Gleaner that activities have already commenced at Amity Hall, St Catherine, and Ebony Park/Spring Plains, Clarendon, and expressed optimism that the programme will, among other things, stabilise the agricultural supply chain, thereby facilitating the linkage between agriculture and agro-processing.
Similarly, Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips, speaking recently at a post-Cabinet press briefing at Jamaica House, said the agro-parks "represent an important step forward in enhancing the food-security prospects in the country".
"It is possible, indeed desirable, that we import less, because about half of this represents imports that can be competitively produced in Jamaica, and that is a priority task of the Government, which was affirmed during the special meeting of the Cabinet," Phillips said.
To advance the creation of these agro parks, which the Government hopes will lead to the employment of approximately 6,000 persons, the European Union has provided grant funding of J$398.7 million. The money is specifically to finance infrastructure and production-related activities in four agro-parks at Amity Hall in St Catherine; Plantain Garden River in St Thomas; Ebony Park in Clarendon; and Etington, Trelawny.
At Amity Hall, one of the two parks at which work has already commenced, Clarke said 1,000 of 4,000 acres of lands will be used for rice cultivation.
Across all agro-parks, the list of produce to be cultivated includes onions, vegetables, tubers and condiments, as well as sugar cane, fruit tree crops, livestock and hay.
"We see us dealing with substitution to the tune of about US$45 million a year out of those parks within the first year," Clarke said.
The Government says it expects a minimum of US$8 million in investment in infrastructure at eight project sites throughout the country. It also said that the agro-parks will reduce import substitution of over 56,000 tonnes of produce.