Weir, BAS boss differ on how to get idle lands into production
By Sheria Brathwaite
Large landowners who continue to allow fertile land to lie idle could soon be facing stringent penalties if they do not put their ground into production, says Minister of Agriculture Indar Weir.
But while the top brass of the Barbados Agricultural Society (BAS) appeared to support the government’s bid to ramp up food production, it has urged the minister to adopt the carrot rather than big stick approach, suggesting that farming is risky business.
After the launch of a Grow Green initiative held at the United Nations House in Hastings on Monday, Weir told journalists that the administration was working on a project to scale up production in line with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) goal to cut the region’s food import bill by 25 per cent by 2025 – known as the ’25-by-25′ initiative.
He said this project could include penalising landowners for allowing arable lands to remain idle.
Weir said: “We started a project with the large-scale producers, all of the major plantations, and we’ve looked at the crops that we are targeting to meet the 25-by-25 reduction of the food import bill. Among them will be things that we import on a large scale. For example, broccoli, onions and carrots. And then we are looking at bringing back a lot of the arable land that is currently out of production.
“I don’t want to start mentioning the places because I am reluctant to say that at this point in time, given the fact that we are still involved in some sensitive negotiations about how we’re gonna take those lands – either by way of incentives or by way of penalties – so let that be that until it is settled. But we’ve targeted a lot of the lands that are out of production.”
The minister said meetings with plantation owners were held and the landowners were given two options – plant food or a crop that could be used for national interest or face “consequences”.
“All of the people who came to the table expressed an interest in doing it, especially given the fact that if it is not in production, there will be consequences in terms of how government will go about seeking to get those lands in production or not being a nuisance to Barbadians,” Weir told reporters.
“Lands out of production really are creating problems for us as a people . . . . We have to face facts. There’s an opportunity for people to do crime, so you’re at risk. It encourages monkeys [and] we need to get them back to their natural habitat. It encourages dumping, which is a health hazard as well. So, however, you look at it, those lands, we have to get back into production.”
Weir added that he strongly opposed the idea of arable land being divided into lots for residential development purposes and warned landowners that he would do everything in his power to ensure farmlands remain under agricultural use.
“I think the owners equally have a responsibility in ensuring that they don’t grow bush, but they can grow pastures. If they grow grass, we can use it for livestock farming. So that is one of the things that they would have to make up their mind about,” said Weir.
“What is my greatest disappointment? Owners of land aren’t motivated enough to put [their land] into food security, but are more motivated to get the land subdivided into commercial and concrete activity that will not feed any of us . . . People need to get off this notion that they can take land out of production for 20 years and then go for subdivision.
“This minister does not subscribe to that so they can take their minds off that until I’m gone because it’s not gonna happen under my watch. And if I’m going to be fair to everybody, I would give you the option of growing grass; that’s as far as it goes. I would give you the option of growing energy plants like sugarcane or king grass because we are going to need that in the privatisation of the sugar industry. So those are the options we are looking at but the lands will go into production or else we would then do what it takes to get people to understand how serious we are.”
Weir noted that there 28 000 acres of arable land in Barbados and under 60 per cent was utilised. As far back as 1993, the Ministry of Agriculture had earmarked 45 000 acres for both sugar and non-sugar farming but this figure continued to dwindle as sugar production declined and more acres of farmland ended up as residential development following a rapid rise in change-of-use approvals by successive administrations.
BAS Chief Executive Officer James Paul told Barbados TODAY that he agreed that arable land now covered in bush should go back into production. However, he urged the administration not to take a heavy-handed approach in ramping up production.
Paul said: “We have always been pushing to keep land in agriculture and anything the government can do to help keep lands in agriculture is important. I fear that what we are seeing happening in the country today is that there are people who are speculating on agricultural lands, zone one [water table] land in some cases too, but they are speculating on these lands. And as a result of that, a lot of the lands that should be in agriculture are not going into agriculture.”
He said there were a lot of risks involved in farming.
“We want the government to also look to see whether the current incentives regime is actually adequate enough,” he said. “We have to be fair at the same time to the landowners because agriculture is an expensive undertaking [and] mistakes in agriculture you don’t easily recover from. Farmers face several challenges, the weather, which can destroy a whole crop and then pests.
“Because of the uncertainties that there are in agriculture, I think maybe we need to look at whether or not the current incentive regime is adequate to encourage farmers to first remain in agriculture and whether or not when there is a challenge or when they’re experiencing challenges, whether or not the amount of help being given to the farming community is actually adequate enough for them to overcome those challenges. So you have to be balanced.”
Paul also said he was angered that property owners were also using arable lands to erect photovoltaic solar power stations. He stressed that it was an insult to describe these projects as farms, noting that in many instances the way the solar systems were built did not allow for livestock to graze in between the solar cells.
The BAS boss said there were several farms across the island with the capacity to generate energy. He suggested that farmers, especially those with large pens, should be given the opportunity to put solar panels on their roofs at cheap rates.