Thursday 28th September, 2006


Regional rescue for agriculture

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By Wesley Gibbings

No one is expecting miracles, but the regional agriculture sector is hoping that a more cohesive approach to its declining fortunes will assist in regaining important ground lost mainly through indifferent policy guidelines and priorities.

Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture (IICA), Cheslton Brathwaite, describes agriculture as “the bedrock of society and the cornerstone of any economy.”

“Agriculture,” he said, “is not only about helping marginal poor farmers, (it) is a strategic sector of our economy based on science that contributes to food security for the nation, national and social stability, preservation of the environment and the generation of employment opportunities.”

Regional agencies involved in the process are prepared to give the subject yet another shot at next week’s Caribbean Week of Agriculture in Nassau, Bahamas.

The event follows successive interventions and several high-level workshops including a major one in 2004 involving leading institutions such as the IICA, Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Cardi), and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The workshop noted then that while agriculture has been “a critical building block of all Caribbean economies” its decline has been steady and its future unstable.

According to the experts, the sector has experienced uneven growth, a deterioration in traditional areas of production, commodity price volatility and has been hit hard by new and stringent production standards set by the international community.

Production for domestic consumption, which has generally fared better, is also affected by low prices for imported commodities made more widely available through trade liberalisation. Cardi executive director, Wendell Parham, even suggested recently that much of this was being led by consumers themselves.

“In the developed countries and, to a large extent, right here in the Caribbean, consumers seem to be spearheading and or influencing how food is produced, packaged, prepared and sold,” he said when opening the Agri-Food Trade Convention in Trinidad in May.

Recognition of these realities has nudged Caribbean countries in the direction of a number of new policy initiatives, though all within the context of liberalised markets and under conditions of globalisation.

In 2003, for example, Guyana President Bharat Jagdeo called for what he termed a “repositioning” of agriculture in the region.

Now know as the “Jagdeo Initiative” a menu of proposed interventions which would have the effect of synchronising regional policies on the sector has been adopted by Caribbean Community (Caricom) states.

The initiative says the region should move, by 2015, to develop a “transparent regulatory framework at national and regional levels, that promotes and facilitates investment and attracts (direct and indirect) inflows of capital.”

It also calls for action that would stimulate “the innovative entrepreneurial capacity of Caribbean agricultural and rural communities” and enable the region “to achieve an acceptable level of food security that is not easily disrupted by natural and or man-made disasters.”

Cardi spokesman, Selwyn King, told Business Guardian such action is needed to save “one of the key pillars of economic growth and stability in the Caribbean.”

But the “Jagdeo Initiative” also points to what it terms the “key, major, binding constraints” that have the potential to keep progress in this area at bay.

It pointed to:

limited financing and inadequate new investments;

outdated and inefficient agricultural, health and food safety systems;

inadequate research and development;

a “fragmented and disorganised private sector”;

inefficient land and water distribution and management systems;

“deficient and unco-ordinated risk management”;

inadequate transportation systems;

“weak and non-integrated information and intelligence systems”;

weak marketing linkages; and

a lack of skilled human resources.

Next week’s activities in Nassau, say organisers, will assist in driving the process forward. Its agenda includes a specific focus on the “Jagdeo Initiative” and discussions on issues such as agri-tourism: leakages and linkages in the sector and biotechnology issues.

The Cardi Board of Governors is also expected to meet there, while IICA is convening a special meeting of Ministers of Agriculture.

According to Brathwaite, “We urgently need a new vision for the sector and an agribusiness approach that fully recognises that agriculture is more than farming, encompassing the broad spectrum from farm to table and beyond.”

“We are convinced that the extended agricultural sector, seen from a perspective that is broader than primary production, is crucial in the search for economic growth and rural prosperity,” he said.

Regional officials meeting in Nassau next week are hoping to move the key issues from talk to action.

Caribbean journalists, under the banner of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) have been invited to also discuss the role of mass media in interpreting such issues.

Competition, labour shortage smashing pumpkins

Boysie Ramlogan watches workers wash and sanitise pumpkin for export at his Charlieville home.

Photo: Keith Matthews


Farm labourers in the Dominican Republic (DR) work eight hours a day for US$5.

In Trinidad, they want $150 (US$23) to work for three and four hours.

So says Boysie Ramlogan, an exporter of at least 16 vegetables—saime, peewah, melongene and goods such as soft drinks and cheese and curry—based in Charlieville, central Trinidad.

Not only do Dominican Republic farmers employ cheaper labour, but they also sell their goods on the export market cheaper than a Trinidadian farmer, Ramlogan said.

“Right now, we’re fetching US$8.50 (for pumpkins) freight on board. The DR is selling it around US$6.”

It’s around 11 am and Ramlogan’s four workers, two of them women, were washing the dirt off huge pumpkins under a garage south of his two-storey concrete home to prepare them for export. Ramlogan is in the process of expanding his operations from his home to a warehouse nearby that’s under construction.

Once washed, one man picked up each pumpkin and tossed it across to the other worker, a big, burly fellow, to place on the growing pile of pumpkins with the rich orange pigmentation. Bad pumpkins—those bitten by insects or rotting—are put in a separate heap.

While labourers work in tandem outside, Ramlogan was inside his office talking to a small farmer to have a bag of pimentoes and caraille delivered by eight the next morning.

“Keep the caraille in the shade,” he told the farmer, who plants two acres of land at Monroe Road. “I want it as fresh as possible.”

The caraille farmer is one of three brothers, all of whom are former Caroni (1975) Ltd employees, who each got land as part of their VSEP compensation packages. The pimentoes and pumpkins will be their first harvest.

“There’s no problem getting pumpkins,” Ramlogan said. “It’s an easy crop. One man can maintain 15 acres of pumpkin. It’s a short-term crop. Ninety days after the first planting, you could harvest.”

Even as Ramlogan described pumpkins as easy to cultivate, he said production has dropped because of a decrease in export demand and a labour shortage. The labour problem started with the creation of Cepep, Ramlogan said, leading to workers making increased wage demands.

He spoke of a former driver working for $125 a day who requested $200. When Ramlogan said he couldn’t afford the $75 increase, he quit. Ramlogan filled in for two weeks until he found a new driver who started last Monday at $150 a day.

He said that a year ago, there were nine pumpkin exporters. Today, there are three: Ramlogan, Brent Lenny Elwujud and his wife Niloma Isahak, and Farouk Shah.

“The drop in exports started about three years ago,” Ramlogan said. “The demand for exports is dropping because they’re getting goods cheaper from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Panama. Plantations are also getting smaller due to the labour shortage.”

Exporter Boysie Ramlogan said some pumpkin exporters claimed they have lost as much as 300 bags a shipment due to spoilage.

“Either they are sorting pumpkins bad or exporters are ripping them off,” he said, as he watches his workers apply quality control checks. “I get an average of 25 bags (declared as spoilage) per container. I ship 1,050 bags each week, sometimes twice a week.”

Ramlogan admitted to being lucky in having a good relationship with a reputable importer in Brooklyn, New York. He also exports to his daughter, Asha, in Canada.

He said an exporter could spite a fellow exporter by calling the law enforcement authorities to report that his shipment contains cocaine, as was the case two years ago when police transferred his pumpkins to another container in search of drugs. He lost more than 8,000 pounds of pumpkin.

Exporting is a game of luck and chance. An exporter could end up getting the raw end of a deal as Ramlogan did in exporting a popular locally manufactured soft drink which, when tested by US Food and Drug Administration, was found to not contain the red colouring stated on the label, and was returned to Trinidad. Ramlogan is not certain to be reimbursed for his loss as the expiry date on the beverage has passed.

He also suffered an $18,000 loss on fried channa, which has turned green and mouldy, from an Endeavour Road business, and is having difficulty getting the man to accept his calls, much less accept liability.

Pumpkin exporter Niloma Isahak is walking in her 67-year-old father Abdul’s shoes. He exported under Tropical Food Products Ltd, but retired and went into farming together with his son Ishmael, daughter, her husband Elwujud.

They planted pumpkin, sweet potatoes, sweet peppers, eddoes on 146 acres in Sangre Grande and 70 acres at Manuel Congo on the outskirts of Arima. They own the land at Grande, but rent the one at Manuel Congo. They farm the land at Manuel Congo in the dry season as the San Raphael river overflows often during the rainy season.

“WASA said we couldn’t pump water from the river. They only gave us one day a week for one hour. We used to pump water at 3 am,” Isahak said. “They said we had to pay a fee. They used to come in with security guards and guns. They stopped coming when we got flooded.”

She said the Ministry of Agriculture compensated them when flood water destroyed their crop, adding one has to know someone in the ministry to be justly compensated.

“There are farmers we know who would get compensation for fields less than ours,” Isahak said. “Trinidad full of bobol.”

Isahak’s father, who’s diabetic, for 19 years made and sold locally pepper sauce, mauby, cuchilla and mango anchar with ingredients obtained from Toco and Mayaro. This, at the same time, he exported. Now he leaves his Charlieville home every single day—including weekends and public holidays—at 4 am right after he says his prayers and returns at 8 pm. Along the way to the land, he will pick up labourers at Las Lomas, Brazil and Manuel Congo.

“Because of Cepep, nobody wants to work the whole day when they can work for four hours,” said Isahak, who exports under the name Nile Caribbean Exporters to Miami, New York and Toronto. “They prefer to cut grass.”

Exporting and agriculture run in the Isahak family. Isahak’s sister, Salima Mohammed, who lives next door, exports hot peppers and chandon beni. Brother Abdul Wahab Isahak Jr, imports from all over the world under the label, Premium Foods International, in New York.

Having said that many farmers are discouraged with gardening, Isahak was asked why they still do it. “It is a source of income.”

She remembers working alongside her father since she was 18, leaving home at 7 pm to line up outside the Macoya market on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays for it to open at 4 am, so they could get a space to sell sweet potatoes.

“I used to enjoy it,” said Isahak, who gave birth to a boy on a Friday, was discharged on Sunday and returned to work on Monday. “You have to take life with a pinch of sugar, not salt.”

As Isahak spoke, her four employees, all women, were sanitising pumpkins under a huge garage outside for a shipment of 50,000 pounds to New York.

Rotten pumpkins are given to “the pig man.”

Boysie Ramlogan

Niloma Isahak

Photos: Keith Matthews




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