Smallholder farmers need real solutions

On Friday last, Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder visited farming areas on the East Coast Demerara and listened to complaints from rice farmers about how cattle damage their crops and how long it takes before they can use the fields to replant, as well as the adversity they face in the form of poor drainage and irrigation, including blocked canals.

Minister Holder’s response was to call on the country’s agricultural agencies to find “adequate solutions” to these issues. This would be the perfectly correct response by an agricultural minister if it were not for several things, a major one being that neither of the issues raised is a new problem.

Perhaps for as long as there has been crop and cattle farming, there have been issues of cows and other bovine animals trampling on and eating crops. Crop farmers would invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in preparing land for rice or other produce, not to mention the thousands of hours of labour and other resources only to see it all, or most of it, destroyed by wayward bovines.

While cattle farmers also invest a great deal in cash and resources, their livelihoods are never threatened by carelessly planted crops or plants that grow out of their assigned plots strangling animals. This is not a sci-fi film, this is an epidemic in rural Guyana that can and has impoverished one type of farmer. In fact, the problem is so huge and has been ongoing for so long that there is, in some areas, feuding and enmity between cattle and crop farmers. Animals found destroying crops have been attacked and killed in a few cases possibly by angry, anguished crop farmers.

At the root of this problem is perhaps the lack of laws and regulations governing animal rearing. There might not be any statistical data – unless the agricultural agencies mandated by Minister Holder to fix the problems have some – but there is surely anecdotal and eyewitness evidence that there are many persons who own farm animals and have no land on which to keep them. This is not just a problem in rural areas, it exists in towns as well as in the city. Horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks and chickens, among other farm animals, can usually be found roaming city streets, country roads and highways. Because their owners have no land, they would usually set them out to ‘graze’ wherever they may, and this involves neighbours’ farms, lawns and gardens. They are a nuisance, destroy property, and cause accidents, including loss of life.

Now one would imagine that the way to correct this would be for the aggrieved persons to contact the relevant authorities: city, town, regional or neighbourhood council. This has not helped one iota. None of these agencies, nor for that matter the police stray-catching unit, which is mandated to impound stray animals, has been able to make much of a difference.

Bringing order to the situation would mean outlawing public grazing, so that animal farmers would be required to have fenced land where they could graze their livestock or be forced to take feed to them. Obviously, that is too simple a solution or maybe it is not scientific enough or politically correct. So, it seems the answer is to let the animal nuisance continue and pass the buck/ball between administrations and everyone, while particularly rural farmers, suffer untold losses. Minister Holder is in possession of the ball, but his response last Friday was clearly a huge fumble.

The National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI), the Guyana Livestock and Development Agency (GLDA) and the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA), are the agricultural agencies he mandated to resolve the farmers’ concerns, including the flooding caused by blocked canals. Unless the persons running these agencies have been living on another planet, they are all aware of these issues. The NDIA, in particular, has for decades been fighting a losing battle where drainage problems are concerned, or perhaps not fighting at all as it can barely keep up with the myriad situations popping up all over the country. It is either under-resourced, poorly managed, or both. Minister Noel would know, as it is an arm of his ministry. The GLDA, which is the veterinary arm of the Ministry of Agriculture, says its thrust is to “promote greater efficiency in the livestock product industry and to provide enhanced services in livestock husbandry, livestock health and research so as to make provision for effective administration and regulation of trade, commerce and export of livestock or livestock products and for matters related and incidental.” This is posted on its website, and while streamlining animal farming would certainly improve efficiency in the industry, there is nothing on the site specifically related to this agency taking on that task.

NAREI, as its name suggests, deals with research. It is a semi-autonomous agency and according to its Mission Statement, its mandate is: “To advise, develop and transfer appropriate systems to promote balanced, diversified and sustained agricultural production through adaptive and investigative research using market-driven approach and a range of regulatory services to the sector.” This is the agency that should be solving problems of cattle damaging crops or lack of canal maintenance? Yes. Right.

All around the world, rural life is becoming increasingly fragile. One of the major reasons for this is climate change and its effects on farm life, particularly smallholder farmers. Migration to cities and foreign lands, especially by the younger generation, has also adversely affected economic stability in rural communities. These are mammoth issues, which would not be easy to address. One would imagine then, that every effort would be made to fix the ones that, with a little effort, can be corrected. But it seems some of us eschew the use of the thinking cap.

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