A GUY'S VIEW: The ability to feed ourselves is crucial

One historical feature of Barbados has been that the land holdings of this country have almost always reflected the pattern that has been left over from slavery. A few people owned the majority of the arable land and the rest worked it for them.

When this stopped being the most profitable use of the land, the arable land was left to grow bush for a few years and then cut up into building lots and sold at ridiculous prices for great profit. This process describes the most recent use of large portions of our lands.

While ordinary Barbadians were being encouraged to own a piece of the rock, the owners of capital were busy selling that little insignificant piece to them. No one stopped to ask why would the class of people who possessed the land from the days of settlement be now willing to sell small portions of it to those they had kept it from for hundreds of years.

When multiple acres were owned by a few persons, they paid little in taxes to the state. When they sell 500 square feet to the landless, the new owner of that tiny portion is immediately hit with ridiculous land taxes; for life. If one ever thought that one could really own a piece of the rock, it quickly dawns that all you have done is to put yourself in a position to pay the Government another tax.

A Trinidadian entity was able to secure some of the best of this country’s arable land. That company was willing to invest in the production of sugar cane, an undertaking that was this country’s most profitable agricultural enterprise. For whatever reason, those lands are now out of the hands of that entity. There is great concern that those lands may be on their way out of agriculture altogether.

Barbados has a proportionally huge food import bill. This at a time when foreign exchange is scarce and our foreign exchange reserves look acceptable only because we have borrowed to prop them up and have refused to pay our foreign creditors.

The recent passage of hurricane Dorian provided an opportunity for the Government to hijack the usual preparedness advisories which are issued to the populace and turn it into an advertising fiasco. But the people of The Bahamas could play no such games. That weather system was a real threat by the time it reached them and it had a devastating impact on that country. Experience is probably the world’s greatest teacher, but we do not live long enough to experience everything, so we learn a lot from observing what happens to others around us. Dorian should be a teacher for us.

Dorian completely destroyed the airport on Grand Bahama. We have chosen to laugh at the suggestion that we should establish another airport in the north of the country. Should the Grantley Adams International Airport be damaged, we can accommodate no airlift into this country and no one can escape by air.

This underlines the importance of us being able to feed ourselves. If we are completely dependent on imported food, the day that food cannot be imported our people will starve. One would not wish to imagine what it would be like if this country were to be struck by a hurricane, food cannot be brought into the island, and the hungry people have more guns than the police and Defence Force combined.

Now, against that background, let us consider what might happen with the former CLICO agricultural lands, now being sold by Resolution Life.

We have two avenues to consider. One is what seems best for the long term survival of the people of Barbados and the other is the reality of our recent history. These two paths go in opposite directions and are grounded in conflicting interests.

Most Barbadians have never had access to 100 acres of land of any kind: agricultural, coastal or otherwise. It has never been available to ordinary Barbadians.

The Barbados Government has taken this country into an arrangement with the International Monetary Fund, with the acronym BERT. Like other IMF programmes, the path recommended for this country will likely take our productive assets out of the hands of ordinary Barbadians. Except that ordinary Barbadians never controlled the productive assets of this country. Since there is no taking away, what one will likely see is a consolidation in the hands of those who have always been in control of the productive assets.

A slight variation on that theme would be the handing over of those assets to entities outside of Barbados, but we must remember that the CLICO lands were already owned outside of Barbados. What may be different now is the use to which those lands may be put.

Agriculture does not provide the quickest return on investment, hence persons who invest for quick profit may look to other uses for the lands in their possession. If the former CLICO lands are sold to other private interests, we should hold our collective breath to see what will become of those lands.

There is a view that land should fetch its highest economic value. That philosophy informed the decision to move lands that were strictly committed to agriculture into other non-food producing activities.

We have a history of land owners finding it impossible to put their lands to certain uses, but new owners having no difficulty in having a change of use granted once the lands are conveyed from the previous owners. It is conceivable that the purchase of the CLICO lands may be preconditioned upon a change of use being considered.

Can Barbadians trust that the best arable lands in this country will remain in agricultural production if they are sold to private investors who are looking for a quick profit? Are we allowed to look at the interests and track record of the persons who may have a hand in where these lands go and to whom they go when we address our minds to this issue?

One can see no better use of these agricultural lands than their division among Barbadian farmers with the mandate to produce food for our people, and possibly export, and molasses for our rum industry. It is my understanding that we already import a sizable portion of the molasses that is used in the manufacture of our rums. Can we continue to boast of a Barbados rum if the main ingredient is not Barbadian? A land lease project can achieve this end.

Barbadians are entitled to hope for the best, but we should expect something else, if our history is anything to go by. The direction in which this country is going does not give us much hope for a future for small farmers. The time has long past where we should expect our farmers, who do not own plantations, to be merely subsistence producers. Our farmers are entitled to live and not just survive. What happens to the former CLICO lands will tell us whether it has been determined that we should remain hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Barbados Advocate

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