Recent events have caused me to conclude that agriculture has been relegated to the back burner by the People's Partnership Government. Since, in my opinion, the previous government had not been giving priority to agriculture I had become elated by the enthusiasm of Minister Vasant Bharath when he was Minister of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs. Now I have again become pessimistic as to the future of this sector.
As I have discussed in a previous article the transfer of Minister Bharath from that ministry dealt a serious blow to that sector. No other person assigned as Minister in that ministry in recent years has demonstrated a liking for that assignment as did Minister Bharath.
Why then was he moved? He could quite easily have carried out the duties of Minister of Trade along with those of agriculture. From his public statements from the Ministry of Trade to date the changes that he hopes to make are in administration of the regulatory framework for Government approvals in matters of trade. There are two other ministries dealing with economic development —Ministry of Planning and Ministry of Finance and these could cover Industry which is now tagged on to Trade.
I have waited for some time after the departure of Minister Bharath to assess the performance of the new minister. From all reports some farmers are already having reservations.
My first opportunity to glean any direct impression of the new Minister in his role of Minister of Food Production occurred recently when he appeared on a morning television programme. I am thankful to his Ministry for informing me by e-mail of his scheduled appearance on that programme. So it was with much anticipation that I tuned in to the programme.
My first disappointment was that at the beginning a substantial part of the programme was taken up with a discussion on transport--the Minister's portfolio prior to his being transferred to the Ministry of Food Production.
While the interviewers must take some of the responsibility for this, the minister, in my view, should have firmly indicated that he had come to speak on agriculture. As the interview progressed it was apparent that the Minister was much more comfortable speaking on transport than on agriculture.
The most substantial information on agriculture that I obtained from the interview was that one of Minister Bharath's food production targets had been surpassed but since the Minister did not say which target he was referring to I am none the wiser as to progress in the sector. I was unable to detect in this minister any of the grasp of the agricultural sector shown by Minister Bharath. I hope that I am mistaken-time alone will tell.
I am confused as to the new assignments of departments to ministries, particularly as they affect agriculture and food production. What used to be Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs is now apparently reduced to Food Production only (although its website still refers to it as Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs). The Ministry of Housing is apparently now Housing, Land and Marine Affairs.
However when one goes to the website of the Ministry of Housing, while it is headed Ministry of Housing, Land and Marine Affairs — in the text it is referred to as the Ministry of Housing and the Environment! The Forestry Department is still discussed in the website of the Ministry of Housing so I have to presume that Forestry has not been transferred to the new Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.
The Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) is with the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources. It is clear from the website of the IMA that it has a substantial thrust in aquaculture which is one of the Ministry of Food Production's development thrusts. The Fisheries Division is presumably still under Food Production.
The confusion in portfolios indicated above makes it difficult to monitor progress in the agriculture sector. As I have stated before I am particularly concerned with the transfer of Land from the Ministry of Food Production to the Ministry of Housing since this signals a priority of housing over agriculture for use of land.
We glibly talk of food security but not even Minister Bharath, for all his interest in agriculture, would tell us what area of land would be available for agriculture or what had happened to the nearly 70,000 acres of Caroni (1975) Ltd land that was in agriculture. In a small island, with limited land space, "townhouses" must be a serious consideration instead of houses on separate plots of land.
Where is the land use policy and has this been based on a new (agricultural) land capability system? With persistence similar to that of Bruce and the spider, I shall continue to return to this question which is critical to the future of agriculture but which continues to be ignored-no doubt because, in spite of all the rhetoric this Government, as with previous ones, has no real interest in agriculture.
My final despair is with the Economic Development Board. In the Business section of the Trinidad Guardian (August-week-three) there was an interview with the new chairman who outlined plans for that board. I have no problem with a systematic, planned, long term approach to the activities of the board.
I am, however, disappointed to learn that the energy sector will be the first priority for the board and agriculture the last. I had assumed that diversification of the economy away from energy would have been the priority. Perhaps the chairman will have to be sure that he takes off his hat as CEO of the Energy Chamber when he enters the boardroom! I shall write more of this anon.
• John Spence is professor emeritus, UWI. He also served as an independent senator