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Alternative Agriculture – Living in the Hills

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by Nilio Gumbs Tue, Apr 24. 2012

The claims and counter- claims by the opposition and the government over the quantity and quality of banana exports from this country – in the first month of the New Year – had many Vincentians adopting a wait and to see approach, not knowing which side to believe.{{more}}

You will see “the Geest boat dock at Port Kingstown” was the archtype response of the government, which seems to have won the day, as the docking of the boat was the feeble manifestation of the robustness of the industry that would rouse the opposition.

A few months later the headlines in one of the weekly newspaper was “180 boxes in 8 weeks”, reflecting the parlous state of the banana industry. That headline itself must raise some eyebrows, pontificating on the state of the industry itself. Is it worth the time and effort to continue with a dying industry? What recourse or alternatives are there? In essence should we start looking at other crops?

Barring the fluctuation in commodity prices, there are several agricultural crops that come to mind that are fetching high prices on the world market. The three that readily come to mind are Vanilla, saffron and cocoa. Recently, the price for a kilo of Vanilla was above US$30 because of the relative scarcity of the vanilla pod in the few countries where the crop is grown. Only saffron fetches a higher price for any spice on the world market.

The Ministry of Agriculture is presently looking at cocoa cultivation. Is it a viable alternative? That is too early to say! In marketing, it is taught that a business (venture) must undertake a SWOT (Strength, weakness, opportunities and threats) analysis. Threats include your competitors. Hence, for this exercise, I would only focus on one threat- cocoa competitors.

Surveying the immediate environment as a basis for assessing the viability of cocoa cultivation, we don’t have to look too far beyond our region. Jamaica has expanded the acreage under cultivation by more than 1000 hectares with a loan from the Inter American Development Bank. Trinidad and Tobago, once the leading producer in the Caribbean region, is rehabilitating the cultivation of the crop as part of its diversification strategy and food security policy. Grenada, with a long tradition of cocoa cultivation, is aggressively ramping up its production and seeking to add value to the products. Then there is Haiti, once the largest producer in the world in the early 18th century. It is currently seeking to increase its output. In St Vincent we are starting from scratch all over again. We abandoned cocoa cultivation many decades ago. There are other external competitors such as Sao Tome, an Eastern Caribbean sized island off Central Africa, which is revitalizing its cocoa production after the speculated large reserve of oil off its coast never materialized. Ivory Coast and Ghana are the world’s largest and second largest producers. Ivory Coast itself is once again politically stable and currently replanting new trees. Nigeria, under its visionary Finance Minister, has recognized the structural imbalance of Nigeria’s oil dependent economy and is seeking to recapture its former glory as the world’s largest producer in the first half of the 20th century.

So, can we really compete in cocoa production? Or should we focus our energy on what we produce best. It seems that at present, we have a comparative and possibly a competitive advantage in the cultivation of marijuana. According to the United States, State Department, “St Vincent is the second largest marijuana producer in the region after Jamaica. It further stated that “more and more young people are getting into its cultivation, with Trinidad and Tobago being the main market for our export.”

What is even more striking about the cultivation of the drug here, is that citizens from the neighbouring islands are in the hills, actively cultivating this illegal drug. Dominica, twice the size of St Vincent is far more mountainous, but appears not to have a marijuana cultivation problem or blessing. So too, does St Lucia, though less mountainous, but pretty much the same!

So, how can we turn a blight into a blessing? At present, several industrialized countries are pursuing medical research with the drug. Israel is the leading country in the application and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. So what are we doing in the region? That is – Jamaica and St Vincent – the largest and second largest producer in the region. Many years ago, I heard that derivatives of the plant were being used in the treatment of glaucoma – nothing has been heard of since.

Certainly, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica may be the only two countries in CARICOM which have the critical infrastructure to pursue research on the drug for medicinal purposes. Where does St Vincent and the Grenadines fit into the scheme of things? Undoubtedly, we can become a major regulated exporter of the drug to these two islands for medical research and application. We can also explore the possibility of exporting the drug to countries like Israel for medical research and use. For instance, Tasmania is the second largest producer of opium in the world. The crop is produced by planters under strict guidelines and supervision of the Australian government. The extract from the plant is used as an ingredient for the production of pain killers like that used in dental surgery.

The spillover benefits to society of such a policy would be great. There would be greater regulation in the production and trade in the drug, a guaranteed export market, minimal risk for the planters involved in the cultivation of the drug, greater certainty and price stability for the drug and a legitimate source of foreign exchange for the country.

Adopting such a policy may be aghast to the British and the Americans. We all know that developed countries seek to hamstring competing developing countries, while they actively pursue the same policy objective. We have seen it with the offshore financial industry and online gambling.

At present, we have a comparative and possibly a competitive advantage in the cultivation and production, which should be harnessed in a legal manner to bring derived benefits to this country. Clearly, St Vincent may have one of the highest, if not the highest per capita production and consumption of the drug in the world, given the widespread use, size of country and population. Judging by the number of boxes of wrapping paper my friend sells as one of many suppliers, the use of the drug is very extensive in this country.

I myself am fascinated by stories of the drug cultivation in the hills. It is a bit improbable to hear of women climbing up steep precipices on ropes to weed the crop, which provides a major source of employment for them to feed their family. Or the estimation by good forestry friends, that around 6,000 people are engaged in the drug cultivation in the hills. So too, the brazenness of youths smoking the drug on the block in the heart of Kingstown.

Some weeks ago, an acquaintance came into the Mauby shop bantering, stating that he was pushing a cart in front of the Central Police Station, when the sentry at the gate told him to take the spliff out of his mouth. He further stated that he “obliged, but put it back in” when he was out of view of the police.

I myself have seen lot of guys smoking a spliff in Jamaica, but not in such brazen manner, making me believe that St Vincent is the ganja capital of the world.

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