Editorial | No housing on Trelawny sugar land
When, after the last election, Prime Minister Andrew Holness decoupled the agriculture portfolio from those for investment and trade and named Floyd Green to head the former, we hoped for energetic and transformative leadership from the young politician.
For instance, being aware, as he should be, of the strong correlation between growth in agricultural output and expansion of gross national product, Mr Green was expected to champion the modernisation of the sector and be a bulwark against continued encroachment on, and vandalisation of, the country’s best farm lands. Questions, however, are arising about Minister Green’s performance, especially his commitment to the latter.
Recently, as was reported by this newspaper, Mr Green, with South Trelawny MP Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, toured the Parnassus area of the parish when it was confirmed that 148 acres (approximately 60 hectares) of land on which sugar cane used to be grown for the Long Pond sugar factory would soon be converted to low-income housing, some of which will go to squatters.
“We are close to the completion of the arrangement between the Ministry of Agriculture and ourselves regarding the transfer of the land,” said Gary Howell, managing director of the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ), which is spearheading the project. The scheme clearly has the imprimatur of the minister and the backing of Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert.
Thirty-seven per cent of Jamaica used to be deemed suitable, in terms of terrain and soil quality, for farming. In recent years, this has fallen to below 20 per cent, much of the loss having taken place over the past half-century as real estate expanded on to prime lands. At the same time, much land that used to be in production has become vacant and/or fallow as the sugar industry collapsed, with little significant replacement.
For example, a 2007 agriculture census by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica found that over a decade, land in farming fell by 95,770 hectares, or 22.7 per cent, to 325,810 hectares. Other data by the World Bank suggests that since 1960, the proportion of Jamaica’s entire land mass dedicated to agriculture has fallen from over 49 per cent to around 41 per cent in 2018.
This trend is concerning on several fronts.
First, the decline is not happening because Jamaica’s agricultural sector is significantly more productive. The more than 200,000 people employed in the sector are mostly over 50, with limited education or training. Generally, they use hand tools and cultivate small plots. Jamaica’s agriculture is a low-tech sector.
Further, prior to last year’s estimated decline of nearly 40 per cent because of the COVID-19-induced collapse of the tourism industry, Jamaica’s food-import bill had passed US$1 billion, accounting for around a fifth of total imports. Experts, however, say that perhaps 20 per cent, or more, of the food bill could be replaced with domestic substitutes. That, if it were to happen, would translate to a potentially transformative US$200 million unleashed into the agricultural sector.
Then there is the issue of food security, whose importance has been highlighted by both the disruption in supply chains and the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. It makes sense, where possible, for countries to grow as much of their food as they can. These issues are exacerbated by the problem of global warming and climate change. Scientists predict that with a hotter climate, agricultural productivity could fall by up to a third, meaning, all things being equal, that 33 per cent more land will be needed to produce the same amount of food.
In the circumstances, it is obviously bad policy for Jamaica to transfer its best agricultural lands to real estate. Which remains the basis of this newspaper’s opposition to the Government’s plan for a new city/township of 17,000 homes, plus commercial/industrial facilities, on nearly 2,000 acres of what the National Environment and Planning Agency labelled as the island’s “most fertile ... A1 soil”, at Bernard Lodge on the south coast. It is the basis, too, of our disquiet over the intention to build the 800 houses on the former sugar lands at Parnassus, thus expanding the vandalism of agricultural lands across Jamaica.
Providing people with homes is a good and noble objective. But it doesn’t have, and ought not, to be at the cost of our “fertile ... A1 soil”. The provision of decent housing , as this newspaper has consistently argued, should start with a massive effort at urban/inner-city renewal, leveraging the resources of state agencies like HAJ and the National Housing Trust, the private sector, and communities. New suburban developments must seek out marginal lands.
The argument that encroached-upon lands, like the bulk of the 7,000 acres in the region of the shuttered Long Pond factory, were already idle, or that only small portions thereof are being taken, is far from compelling. The point is that these bits become lost to their most pertinent economic and social value, whose liberation merely requires imagination and effort. Building homes on farm lands is merely unimaginative short-termism, which is not what we expected of Floyd Green.