MY attention was drawn to a news item in one of last weekend’s newspapers, which reported that the government had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Center for Food Security and Entrepreneurship of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies. The MOU according to the report, was to ‘formalize collaboration in biodiversity, food security and supporting St. Lucia’s transition to a green economy.’
My immediate reaction was one of skepticism, because we suffer from a disease which is responsible for our stagnation. How many times have we heard of technical delegations visiting our country, presenting plans and programmes for the development not only of our agricultural sector, but for improving productivity in several areas to increase efficiency in the management of government resources in health, education, infrastructure, and other government departments. I questioned the usefulness of such an exercise, because of the failure of the guardianship of our countries throughout the region, in which delegation after delegation of technical experts visiting our shores after having done feasibility studies, produced numerous reports, presented recommendations to the authorities, which will end up languishing on the shelves of a government departments gathering dust to eventually be forgotten.
The fact is that there are no serious national initiatives or research facilities that have been established in St. Lucia for agricultural research in bio-technology by St. Lucians, apart from the research done by the Taiwanese at Union Agricultural Station in the propagation of water-melons, pineapples, tulip production and fresh water shrimp. Our agricultural sector is just not making the kind of contribution to our economic advancement as bananas did in a previous era.
At this juncture I must draw attention to what professors at universities instruct you, and that is, you must always present evidence to support your arguments or theories. An illustration which supports my observations of our failure to pursue scientific research and work, is our resident Minister of the Public Service, Sustainable Development, Energy, Science and Technology and Broadcasting, Jimmy Fletcher, with a Ph.D in Plant Physiology. He prefers to indulge in armchair work and posturing, instead of having his eyes buried in a microscope in an agricultural laboratory. Why doesn’t he use his genius in more productive endeavours, instead of the affairs of men?
I will present a statement made by this Minister of multiple functions at the signing of the MOU, which sounds more like a vicious attack on the government by the opposition U.W.P. According to Fletcher, “Our country is going through a very serious economic crisis, and the challenge for us is to find ways of getting out of that crisis.” Is that a confirmation that our country is suffering economically which the government has been denying all along. This is in the light of the government’s attempts to paint a rosy picture of our economy, which denies the record number of job losses and business closures, and its attempts to give the impression to the public that everything is under control and under excellent management. But the public is not fooled and Jimmy Fletcher’s statement just confirms the reality that exists in the country today.
We are acutely aware of the shortage of certain agricultural products such as tomatoes at certain times of the year. We are in the tropics, blessed with rich alluvial and volcanic soil, that is conducive to growing a wide range of tropical fruits and products for local consumption and for export. Yet our annual food import bill is astronomical. I was able to get statistical data for the year 2009, which showed that we spent $130.3 million for the importation of carrots, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, grapefruit and celery just a small example of food products we import that can be grown locally. Celery imports for that year alone accounted for $54,000.00 of our food import bill. This almost sounds like an absurdity.
I recently viewed a programme on BBC television which highlighted the difference between countries that have invested in scientific and technological development which featured Singapore, a country that is self-sufficient in most of its agricultural needs. Singapore, similar in size to St. Lucia, is an industrial and technologically advanced country, which produces a wide range of agricultural products which are never in short supply because of its `hydrophonic’ method which complements soil production.
There is a distinct and observable lack of research, and science and technology pursuits in the field of agriculture not only in St. Lucia, but in the wider English-speaking Caribbean region. An illustration of this malaise is highlighted by the Institute for Agricultural Studies at U.W.I., Jamaica. We had to turn to Latin American countries to solve the black sigatoka disease which was ravaging our banana industry.
Instead of advancing, we are regressing. At one time we had an agricultural research facility in the Roseau Valley, headed by St. Lucian agricultural scientist Dr.Edsel Edmunds, with an international reputation in the study of the ‘nematode’ disease which affected our banana industry. On a tour of agricultural projects and fisheries facilities around the island while I was P.R.O. for the U.W.P. government, I was amazed to discover that St. Lucia was the recipient of thousands of banana seedlings from Israel, a country located on the other side of the globe that does not have a tropical climate. Just another ridiculous example of our failure to involve our regional countries in research and technological science.
It is time for us to end the empty posturing and get down to liberating our minds after more than 300 years of the emancipation from slavery. Will a structure or building ever be built or completed, if we adopt the same attitudes that abound in our institutions, by putting plans on a shelf, rather than marshalling the resources of workmen, get the necessary supplies of cement, steel, bricks, and get to work to build a completed structure in the end? It is the only way to bring about the liberation of our people and move to the next level. Not empty talk and rhetoric.