Government has been sternly advised to stop taking prime lands out of agriculture and putting it into residential and commercial developments.
The recommendation is contained in the final draft to the Physical Development Plan for Barbados.
Deputy Chief Town Planner George Browne told a sensitization forum this morning that based on a study done three years ago by consultants there was now in excess of 20,000 vacant lots on the island; therefore he contended that there was no need to enter the agricultural area any further in terms of providing for residential and other development.
“Some of these [vacant lots] are found in some of the older developments like Ruby and Union [in St Philip], which were approved in 1970,” Browne explained, adding that over the past 40 years some developments had not been taken up.
“In addition to that, we have found out that in terms of derelict buildings and abandoned buildings, there is a 16 per cent vacancy within those existing buildings,” he told the gathering of secondary school students at the National Union of Public Workers’ headquarters on Dalkeith Road, St Michael.
The 2014 study, which focused on developments within Greater Bridgetown area, as well as along the west and south of the island, found that only five per cent of residential lands was occupied by semi-detached houses, terraces and apartments. However, most of the residential development was based on the traditional housing with the backyard concept.
But while suggesting that any new developments should be directed at the urban corridors and centres, Browne underscored the importance of saving agricultural lands for reasons of food security.
Drawing attention to the country’s 2014 food import bill of $600 million, he contended that 50 per cent of those foods could be grown here.
However, the deputy chief town planner reported that between 1991 and 2013, the amount of agricultural land on the island was reduced by 53 per cent, with local agriculture officials currently reporting that while they would require 30,000 acres to meet the agricultural needs of the country, only 28,000 acres were available.
“This is another major challenge that we face when we are looking at the agricultural sector,” said Browne, adding that “one of the things on a daily basis that we are faced with is the large number of applications that we receive for the change of use of agricultural land into non-agricultural usage in terms of residential development.
“The majority of it is for residential development,” he stressed, adding that over the last 30 years there has been a significant increase in the conversion of “bread basket” lands of St George, St Thomas and St Philip.
However, he pointed out that these areas not only had some of the highest rainfall, but some of the best soils.
“So we have lost significant amounts of agricultural land in those areas,” he lamented, while expressing fear of what could happen in terms of the country’s ability to feed itself, if the island were to be struck by a major natural disaster.
Senior Town Planning Officer Rudy Headley also weighed in on the issue, saying the department was under pressure to approve significant tracts of agricultural land for residential purposes. However, he warned that the department would be pushing back against any move to change the use of agricultural land for the benefit of having more residential development.
“There has been pressure for the release of agricultural land in successive Physical Development Plans and that is something that we have sought to fight against,” said Headley, adding that Town Planning believes the goal of food security and food sovereignty should be preserved.
“This is something that has to be managed and monitored. Thankfully we have our geographical information system. That resource now puts us in a position to make updates as decisions are taken . . . and we have a snapshot of the land that is remaining for agriculture at any point in time,” the senior town planner added.