Editorial | Fighting farm thieves
It is perplexing that decades after Parliament gave the approval for the appointment of agricultural wardens, Jamaica has not yet established this contingent of quasi farm police.
Pearnel Charles Jr, the agriculture minister, said recently that he was “in the process of seeking Cabinet’s approval for the implementation of the agricultural warden programme”, which he expects to “significantly change the landscape” of praedial larceny.
There must be a good explanation why this dedicated force was not established given that it was first recommended in the 1980s and reaffirmed in the early 2000s amendments to the Praedial Larceny Act, which were aimed at quelling a worsening theft of agricultural produce. Yet there is a praedial larceny unit within the agriculture ministry, which works with the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) in investigating stealing from farms and in training police officers to do so.
Praedial larceny is a crisis in the Caribbean – over eight in 10 farmers lose some of their crops to thieves. Another finding a decade ago placed the value of that theft at more than US$320 million, or approximately 19 per cent of farm output. In Jamaica, the loss was estimated at around US$55 million a year, or over J$8 billion at current exchange rates.
Few businesses could survive the pilfering, or, perhaps more correctly, having a fifth of their production carted away by thieves. Not unless they could readily build those losses into the price of their goods and easily pass them on to consumers. Or they might cut corners, operate inefficiently, and merely limp along.
Jamaican farmers for the most part, we suspect, do the latter. Which shows in the fact that the island’s nearly 200,000 agricultural workers are mostly older people over 50, inefficiently cultivating small plots.
So while agriculture contributes over eight per cent to Jamaica’s gross domestic product, its productivity is stagnant, or declining, and the island’s food import bill is over US$1 billion, or more than 15 per cent of total imports. At the same time, it is estimated that Jamaica could substitute up to a quarter of its food imports with domestic production.
The impact of praedial larceny, viewed through the lens of the macro economy, is one thing. But as Mr Charles noted, it is also a tragedy on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people.
Praedial larceny, officials say, is not any more, if that were ever the case, a few random thieves raiding people’s farms for a handful of products. Increasingly, it is organised crime. Thieves have developed networks to unload their goods into formal supply chains.
In that regard, this newspaper’s call a year ago for praedial larceny to be dealt with as the crime that it is, remains relevant. The specialised investigative body, the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency, should place it squarely on its agenda.
At the same time, a programme of prevention and disruption at the community level and in defined geographic areas is necessary.
ADD BOOTS ON THE GROUND
That, in part, is what the agricultural wardens were expected to do. They would be assigned to police stations under the supervision of the local subofficer or regional chiefs. That would add boots on the ground to help deter the farm thieves without placing a significant additional burden on the domestic police.
The wardens would not require the same level of training as formal members of the constabulary.
Mr Charles might explain why the project has not taken off, causing his ministry in the past year to have to train 440 members of the JCF in the investigation of farm theft and preparing case files.
Additionally, he should elucidate why the element of the Agricultural Produce Act requiring “every person carrying on the trade or business of growing or rearing agricultural produce” to be registered with the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, and for people transporting domestic agricultural goods to possess receipts for their products, has failed.
The launch of the agricultural warden programme, thus bringing potential disruptors to the areas where the stealing starts, should help. However, the project has been in limbo for so long that it might be useful to have stakeholders review the act to determine whether it remains fit for purpose.
For instance, the question of whether an agricultural warden should be explicitly afforded the power of arrest might be considered. Or why the many projects to fight praedial larceny seem not to work.