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A culture of critical conversation 3

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One week and a half ago, our parliament passed a strange bit of legislation. I call it Valdetario number 2. The same two men who signed a Grand Beach Accord some years ago and ended the ODD uprising in SVG are doing it again. In a sad parade of “Follow the leaders,” all our representatives and senators in parliament said ‘Yes’ to a secret memorandum of agreement, signed between Ralph Gonsalves and Nick Debenham.{{more}} Son and Ralph persuaded the House, on Friday before last, to put about 8,000 acres of land (and maybe 4,000 farming families) under the control of a British trading company called Armajaro. Amazingly, some 20 years after our Parliament had put Prime Minister Mitchell to run an Ottley Hall project with people he couldn’t handle, a new parliament is presenting us with Valdetario number 2.

Now, hear me good, I don’t give Armajaro one inch of blame for doing what they doing. That is what their business is about, taking advantage of opportunity and opportunists.

Hear what I am saying plain and straight. Cocoa is a reasonably good crop for agriculture in SVG. Chocolate, too, has powerful possibilities as a regional industrial sector, but the dangerous betrayal that the cocoa memorandum presents us with is threefold. First, the agreement did not come before the public for us to see, touch and discuss it; second, the government /Prime Minister did not see what he was signing; he was asleep; and third, the agreement appoints the Armajaro Company to make policy over us here in SVG and even in the region. That sound like Valdetario, Dr. Rolla, SACE and Ottley Hall all over again, this time in agriculture.

Although the cocoa memorandum was signed early in August 2011 by Dr. Gonsalves and Mr. Debenham, it was more than 4 months later that it came for our Parliament to debate it. Now, in those 4 months, howmany of us did they give copies to, so that we could understand it and give some feedback? Did you see a copy? The agreement has to do with 8,000 acres of land that Vincentians will cultivate under Armajaro! Certainly it is our right to have a say in that. But it seems that in this age of revolution in education, they want secret agricultural agreements and ignorant citizens to still be a part of the game. If we allow them.

IN COCOA JAIL

Now, cocoa from parts of the Caribbean is top class “fine and flavour” cocoa, but that makes up just about 1% of the cocoa on the international market. The chocolate companies are hungry for Caribbean cocoa produced in Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago and they pay premium prices for it. Just two (2) months ago, in October, according to reports, “Trinidad and Tobago copped the first prize in the category of ‘spicy’… at the International Cocoa Awards in Paris, France.” This is the third year in a row that T&T cocoa has won a first place at this ‘Salut du Chocolat’ show in France. Do you see what I mean? Armajaro knows that SVG cocoa can make a mint of money for them and they are coming for it. In the agreement, they not even allowing us to get the plants from Trinidad for ourselves, so that we could claim the quality cocoa as our own and charge them for it. They buying it and bringing it in for us. Is their cocoa. You don’t see that Dr. Gonsalves was sleeping! Some of us may remember when workers on the sugar and arrowroot estates would start off the week ‘trusting’ their sugar, rice and saltfish from their estate shop, only to find when Friday reach for them to get their wages, only pennies there for them. Watchout! Those days are coming back. Armajaro will provide cocoa plants, credit for crop establishment and inputs like fertilizer, buy the cocoa when it is harvested at the cheap price and pay the farmers minus what they owe. The other thing is that this company will want to buy the wet cocoa and then ferment it, dry it, warehouse it, ship it and sell it, with no share for the growers. That doesn’t make sense, Dr. Gonsalves. Wake up.

You see why it was important for our community to see that cocoa memorandum even before it was signed and presented to Parliament?

There is a sinister undercurrent in this cocoa memorandum with Armajaro Trading Ltd. I feel it in my guts when I ask this question: how come Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dr. Gonsalves did not think about setting up a Vincentian cocoa industry, instead of giving it to Armajaro? Can it be that he has no confidence in himself, or in his Ministry of Agriculture or in the farming community? Does he want us to be forever a scrunting, low wage people rather than a share owning, dividend earning agribusiness community? It don’t look good. Imagine the cocoa memorandum says that we cannot get together with other Caribbean cocoa producers to develop a regional industry – unless Armajaro does it for us! And this cocoa memorandum is to last 50 years until 2061. This cocoa deal wants to lock up our future and our children’s future and our nation’s potential.

Cocoa must get better leadership. Farmers, agribusiness leaders. That Gonsalves-Debenham Cocoa Memorandum must go. Now.

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