The local agricultural sector has been so badly decimated over the last several decades that any government who tries to fix it will have to consider whether or not the cost will be worth the return.
This according to Agricultural economist Omardath Maharaj in response to platform promises by Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar to revitalise the local sugar industry.
Persad-Bissessar was addressing party supporters at Gopaul Lands in Marabella during the United National Congress’ Monday Night Forum when she announced plans for the establishment of a state-of-the-art cooperative sugar manufacturing company at Usine Ste. Madeleine.
Persad-Bissessar said the new sugar company will purchase sugarcane grown by private farmers at market-based prices and will produce raw sugar and jaggery for sale to domestic and export markets.
“Investors will be required to fully finance the building of their sugar manufacturing plant. The Government will provide all the necessary support required to fast-track implementation of investors’ plans, as well as the necessary land or tax incentives,” she said as she urged voters to choose the UNC at the Local Government Election polls on December 2.
She said since the closure of Caroni (1975) Limited on July 31, 2003, T&T has been spending more than $300 million annually importing sugar and sugar products.
In 2011 when Persad-Bissessar was Prime Minister, she spoke about the closure during the launch of the Sugar Heritage Village and Museum Project in Couva, saying, “The closure of the industry saw the end of an historic era, the fracturing of their social economic sugar culture that was so profoundly entrenched in the lives of so many citizens. While we cannot restore that industry and the livelihood of all these people, which was the historical bulwark of our economic prosperity, we can preserve the great legacy of hard work of our forefathers in this industry.”
But contacted on Tuesday, Maharaj who has long been an advocate for the local agriculture sector said agriculture has sadly become one of the least profitable parts of this country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP.)
“Official local statistics, with all its limitations, tell us that agriculture’s contribution to GDP is 0.5 per cent. It confirms that the sector has been decimated for decades. What, then, is the true cost of recovery? Can we afford the remedy given the current difficulty with revenue generation by the local economy, mounting public sector debt, health, infrastructure, crime, and all of the other challenges we face as a population?” Maharaj asked.
He said any government that intends to change this, must step up with urgency, in the public’s interest, to ensure that there is value for money in their service delivery.
He said any move to create a private-public partnership for the sugar industry must also be done in a way which does not mirror the woes affecting the rice sector.
“We would not want to see this approach suffer similarly to the rice sector at the moment where NFM, with State influence, is considered to hold monopsony power.”
He said it is important to note the physical elements of the sugar industry, as well as the people and social constructs the industry were built around, have all been dispersed although he said all ideas are welcomed at this stage.
“However, the closure and subsequent management of the VSEP to former sugar workers has scarred thousands of people either directly or indirectly in this country over the years. At this stage, I think people are genuinely interested in transparency, the perception of corruption, and the ease of doing business in this sector,” Maharaj said.
He said he has called for years for a mature social dialogue on the issues that confront T&T- including the importation of tainted food.
“Aside from the occasional rhetoric of “eat local” and “support poor rural farmers,” the national conversation is mute on imported food quality issues such tainted food allegations like honey mixed with sugar syrup, coconut water substituted with tap water and an unfettered street and fast-food trade across the country for example. It is also mute in genuinely discussing if we can, in fact, turn agriculture and fisheries into our ‘new’ oil and gas.”