Tue | May 11, 2021

Utilise idle agricultural lands

Published:Wednesday | April 21, 2021 | 12:20 AM

THE EDITOR, Madam:

I have taken note of your editorial titled ‘No housing on Trelawny sugar lands’, published in The Sunday Gleaner on April 18. We are at one with the need to protect, preserve and appropriately utilise our farmlands. The need for sufficient arable land is critical to our food security, and as minister, I am seized of that fact and will do all in my power to achieve this end. We cannot, however, approach the preservation of agricultural land as we have over the last five decades. That approach which has focused more on preservation and less on utilisation has left us with thousands of acres of agricultural land that have been transformed into informal settlements and countless acres of unused or underutilised land. In the new dispensation the approach is threefold: Increase our agricultural land holdings, assess all of the Government’s agricultural land holdings and craft a structured and strategic approach to their use, and engage the private sector to put agricultural land to productive use.

Part of my vision is for lands that are good agricultural lands, owned by the Government but are now outside the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MoAF), to be transferred to the MoAF. In this regard, we have engaged the National Housing Trust (NHT) and the National Land Agency (NLA) to transfer land to the ministry that is appropriate for agriculture. As a result, the NHT and the NLA have, over the last five years, transferred some 25,000 acres to the MoAF to be managed by its agencies.

Further in line with these efforts, the ministry has also embarked on a Land Owner Match programme where the Agro Invest Corporation (AIC) leases privately owned agricultural lands and match those with suitable agricultural investment. Thus far, over 300 acres have been so leased and we continue to appeal to persons who own unused agricultural land to contact the AIC.

As we seek to increase the land stock available to our farmers, we have embarked on a more strategic and holistic approach to developing the lands we have, especially our former sugar lands under the SCJH. We have conducted assessments of the majority of the sugar lands that are now back in our possession, including the Plantation Garden River in St Thomas and the Long Pond Estates in Trelawny. In the case of Trelawny, there is 14,000 acres of agricultural lands and just half of that is arable. An appreciation of the welfare of farmers in the parish has led to the earmarking of 3,600 acres for subleasing to former sugar cane farmers through the All-Island Jamaica Cane Farmers’ Association, and an additional 1000 acres have been reserved for cattle farmers.

A multimillion-dollar agriculture investment in the form of hemp production has also been facilitated, where some 500 acres have been leased to Organic Growth Holdings, enhancing economic activity in the community while providing consistent employment of at least 30 local residents.

To date, 2,000 acres is overrun with informal settlements and we are working with the Housing Agency of Jamaica to regularise those communities. To help cauterise the spread of informality due to the demand for housing, especially with the explosion in employment in the parish, a housing development proximate to the area that already has a significant informal settlement is being established by the HAJ. This will only utilise 147 acres.

It is critical that we appreciate that modern agricultural production is not confined to large acres of land. The application of technology has revolutionised the capacity of the country to produce agricultural goods and services. Our transformation efforts will further include sustainable intensification of agricultural production, utilising technology to apply aquaponics, hydroponics, vertically and horizontally integrated farming systems of protected agriculture and intensified livestock production methods. The expected result is high productivity and a decrease in the amount of land usage. These technologies are not restricted to land usage but also allow our farmers to save time, money and labour while increasing their yields, as have been done in many developed countries.

Evidently, the biggest threat to agriculture is idle agricultural land. I have tasked the AIC, SCJH and JAMPRO to aggressively engage investors both local and international to pursue the transformation of these lands into high productive zones, agro parks and agro-economic zones that will allow us to satisfy our local and global demand while driving economic growth. It is critical that we attract investment willing to utilise modern technology to drive production and productivity with high efficiency, as is being done in other small to medium-size economies.

The ministry will continue to strengthen its facilitatory services with strong focus on research, extension services, market expansion and helping our small farmers access the appropriate technology and equipment that can truly modernise the sector.

However ,the effective protection of our prime agricultural lands will require a willingness from our private sector and our financial services to invest in agriculture. The Government already has possession of prime lands and is expressing a willingness to make them available for agricultural investment. Idle agricultural lands do not benefit the people of Jamaica.

FLOYD GREEN, MP

Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries