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Editorial | Hurry on agri-wardens

Published:Thursday | June 1, 2023 | 12:37 AM
Agriculture Minister Floyd Green.
Agriculture Minister Floyd Green.

Farmers will welcome Floyd Green’s promise that combating praedial larceny is among his priorities as agriculture minister.

Mr Green is, however, advised to avoid the error of too many policymakers in believing that increasing penalties is of itself an effective deterrent to crime, even if few perpetrators are ever caught, charged or tried for the offence.

So while he pushes ahead with his plans to toughen the fines and jail sentences for stealing from farms, Mr Green would do well by placing equal, or more emphasis on his other proposed initiative: getting the agricultural wardens off the ground, after more than three decades of governments talking about it.

In neither project should Mr Green have to start from scratch. His predecessor, Pearnel Charles Jr, recently named the same programmes among his top priorities for the current fiscal year, saying that he was about to go to Cabinet for approval for the agricultural wardens programme.

Additionally, Mr Green should come to the job he has now had for 10 days with well-developed ideas for handling these problems. He used to talk about them a lot when he was the junior agriculture minister, until his September 2021 shunting to the Office of the Prime Minister – a holding ground for errant ministers – when he was caught breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules.

In a speech on Sunday, Mr Green said that praedial larceny was one of the “big holdbacks” to investment in agriculture, especially by young people.

“... Combating praedial larceny will be my major priority as minister,” he said.

Even without empirical data, there is little doubt about the general truth of Mr Green’s assertion. The anecdotal evidence supports his claim. There are the frequent complaints, especially from livestock farmers, of their animals being stolen, butchered and taken to market.

COSTLY TO FARMERS

This thievery is costly to farmers. The estimate is that Jamaican farmers lose between 10 and 19 per cent of their output to praedial larceny – dollar value upwards of US$55 million (J$8.5 million) a year. Few enterprises, as we previously pointed out, could consistently sustain leakages at that level and remain viable businesses, unless they were monopolies, or received handy government subsidies. Government farm support programmes do not provide that quality of insulation.

Against that background, it is quite rational that people are not rushing to risk their capital, and effort, in agriculture, and that educated young people are not flocking to make farming their profession. Jamaican farmers are, on average, over the age of 50 years old. Most are not adept at new agricultural technologies.

Yet, younger, better educated people, if they can be induced to farming, would be more likely to be receptive to technological innovation in the sector. Finding ways to excite a new generation of farmers to agriculture must be urgent for the Government.

IMMEDIATE SOLUTIONS

In Sunday’s speech at an agricultural show in the western Jamaica parish of Westmoreland, Mr Green outlined two immediate solutions to the praedial larceny problem:

. He plans this week to meet with his legal team to determine “where we are on introducing more stringent penalties for those who go out and steal from our farmers”.

“The penalties are far too low,” Mr Green said.

. And in the coming weeks, he intends to meet the police chief, Major General Antony Anderson, “to see how we can put more boots on the ground in divisions that are having a particular challenge with praedial larceny”.

Added Mr Green: “I have already signalled to the permanent secretary that we have to see how we can accelerate the base of implementation of our agricultural wardens programme.”

The latter proposals, particularly launching the agricultural warden contingent, should be his priority of priorities.

Mr Charles conceded in a parliamentary report last month that farm thefts are under-reported. That is attributable, in part, to a feeling among farmers that there is little to gain in filing complaints to an already-overburdened constabulary, which is not particularly adept at investigating this kind of crime. Moreover, except for the most extreme and evocative cases, stealing farm produce does not excite the same level of outrage as other crimes.

Establishing a quasi-auxiliary force of agricultural wardens, under the broad direction of the police, has been on Jamaica’s agenda since the 1980s. It was formally confirmed in legislation in the early 2000s.

This group, who would not require the same level of training as a constable – and assuming that the force was of sufficient size – would be deployed in farming areas to, as Mr Green puts it, place “more boots on the ground” to deter the praedial thieves.

That is a quite sensible plan, whose compelling logic rests in its support for a sector that is the country’s largest employer of labour, that is critical to food security, and the undermining of which weakens rural communities and social stability.