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Praedial thieves must finally reap what they sow

Published:Sunday | April 15, 2012 | 12:00 AM

When elephants play (or fight), it is the grass that gets trampled.

While there are different wordings for this very popular Swahili proverb, the net effect is crystal clear and indicative of what has transpired in respect of the national campaign to reduce the theft of agricultural produce.

Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke admitted as much to police graduates during a recent address aimed at sensitising them to the long-term negative import of this criminal activity.

"Successive administrations have talked and talked about praedial larceny and its negative effects," the minister, who is enjoying his second turn at bat on this portfolio, conceded.

He went on to reiterate that praedial larceny had been treated with scant regard, especially in the area of enforcement, but failed to enunciate any practical measures to apprehend, punish or deter anyone so inclined.

The sad reality is that since the Agricultural Produce Act of 1927 was promulgated, successive administrations have failed to take any concrete action to convince genuine farmers that they are, in fact, serious about stamping out this scourge.

The act has been amended to, among other things, widen the range of items qualifying as agricultural produce, increase fines and penalties, train security personnel and allocate resources, and, in some cases, relocate them, but nothing substantive has been achieved.

shifted gears

Instead, emboldened by the growing failure of the authorities to cauterise this annual $6-billion haemorrhage, criminals have shifted gear, changed lanes and left law enforcers in their slipstream. Heavily armed thieves, equipped with smartphones and backup vehicles in the event of a breakdown, have turned on its head the adage that 'crime doesn't pay'.

There have been launches and press conferences that have generated impressive sound bites and photo opportunities to the benefit of politicians, other public officials and administrators.

However, an objective appraisal and content analysis of the speeches and promises on the matter by our agriculture ministers over the years would find them guilty of failing to represent the interests of this core constituency.

There is merit to the agricultural receipt-book system. It's not the silver bullet the current administration would have us believe, but an effective tool for establishing traceability.

Started during Clarke's previous tenure, successors Dr Christopher Tufton and Robert Montague neglected it, but used in concert with, or as a component of, a wider crime-fighting/law-enforcement strategy, it can help curb theft of agricultural produce. It must, however, be supported by harsh penalties and fines that would drive fear into potential thieves and give farmers hope that society recognises the value of their effort, time and investment.

The punishment must fit the crime, and victims should have the opportunity to recoup the value of the produce. Praedial larceny very often has a negative domino effect, with the long-term fallout sometimes so devastating it sparks intergenerational poverty, the criminal's tentacles extending well beyond his/her immediate victim.

return the favour

Farmers have for years been suffering at the hands of these criminals. I see no reason why the State should not return the favour on their behalf. The tragedy with the failure to properly and adequately right this gross injustice is that unlike so many other crimes where evidence may be in question, in most praedial larceny cases, the thief is caught in the act or with the goods. Yet the burden of proof is placed on the farmer.

There are laws aplenty to address this scourge, which has been allowed to continue unchecked because of a lack of political will to bell the cat. Speaking at the same function Minister Clarke made this admission, Reginald Grant, the praedial larceny prevention coordinator, reminded his audience that whipping was still on the books and called for its reintroduction. In addition to addressing the overcrowding in prisons, this solution which I wholeheartedly support, would be a much greater deterrent than the measly fines now imposed.

I also endorse the motion tabled in Parliament by Senator Norman Grant, first vice-president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, calling for the establishment of a victim support fund, where the assets of those caught stealing would be liquidated to compensate the affected farmers. I think it only fair that a man using his truck to transport carcasses of cattle he stole should forfeit the right to this vehicle, which should be sold and money given to his victim. This would be especially applicable in such a case where the stolen goods in question would have to be destroyed soon after.

Any real hope of plugging the annual food-import bill in excess of US$800 million, or establishing any sense of food security, demands that we stop pussyfooting around with praedial larceny. Immediate effective action is needed to stop these architects of destruction from further undermining agriculture, which is a linchpin of rural development.

Time to stop talking and get cracking, with the whip if necessary. Over to you, Minister Roger Clarke. Farmers are watching!

Christopher Serju is a journalist covering the rural beat, especially agriculture-based issues. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com.