Dead or Alive
Election debate: The State of Agriculture
Cuthbert Vidal has walked the earth for over six decades and for six decades, he has ploughed the earth.
"I'm 63 years old and since I know myself I've been farming. From the time I was three years old I was helping my father on the farm. Farming has been part of my life."
You can hear the passion in his voice when he talks about agriculture. You can feel the joy in his heart, the freedom in his spirit. He leaves no doubt as to his feelings for it or what it means to him.
"It has been quite exciting, there have been challenges, but it is enticing, it is rewarding, you are close to nature," he tells The Sun.
As a farmer, Vidal has seen the worst of times. He has watched as his citrus farm was devastated by disease, he's been broken hearted as the fruit of his hands – and the entire agriculture sector – was destroyed by hurricanes; he has lived in sorrow as the sweat of his brow was challenged by drought. Yet, Vidal says, he has never seen it this bad.
"It's pitiful…it's shameful" he says of the current state of what virtually everyone accepts ought to be the foundation of Dominica's economy. "It's pitiful."
He recalls the 1980s and 1990s when, he says, agriculture was "a vibrant thing" and people were "highly motivated to go into agriculture; when committed and "very prominent" people were involved and ran the sector; when agriculture was like a beacon.
"There were different types of export crops," he tells The Sun. "And things were different for us, it was fascinating." But over the past decade and a half or so, this farmer of six decades observes, things have changed and not for the better.
"We have been going down a very slippery slope. It has been chaotic, it has been disorganized," Vidal contends. "In the last fifteen years we have seen the devastation of agriculture."
With a general election looming, the state of agriculture has become an issue for discussion, with many contending that the sector is all but dead, or at the very best, in a vegetative state. Among the critics is Athie Martin, an agriculturist and short-lived minister of agriculture in the Rosie Douglas administration of 2000.
"Agriculture has been put out to dry… One of the indicators of our abandonment of agriculture is the financing we put into it, it's callous, it's callous," Martin laments. "The road condition (is horrible), people cannot get to their farms, how the hell (are they) going to farm? They've been totally abandoned. And it's cost the farmers their careers, their homes, their family. People are selling their land… and this is the frightening permanence of the collapse of agriculture."
For the most part, the finger of blame is pointed at Matthew Walter, the minister of agriculture. Last October, Walter seemed to acknowledge the decline in agriculture when he called for Dominica to "once again become the bread basket of the Caribbean" and for Dominicans to change their mindset and eat locally grown foods.
"I think we can do it if we do agriculture in an orderly manner. We have come to the realization that a Dominica without a sound robust agricultural sector will take this economy nowhere," the minister said at a news conference on 21 October at which he spoke of the Caribbean Community's burgeoning food import bill which stood at US$4.5 billion.
More recently, however, Walter has hit out at those who complain that it's time to call in the undertaker for agriculture.
"They are saying agriculture is dead but, my dear friends, anything that is dead cannot stand up," Walter told a rally of the ruling Dominica Labour Party in St. Joseph on Monday 5 May, suggesting that there was evidence that agriculture was doing well "because we have enough food to export. So any country that has food to export, it is indicative that this country is doing well in agriculture."
Vidal agrees the sector isn't dead.
"It cannot be dead. It cannot die. You cannot convince me that a country like Dominica with enough fertile land, that you are going to allow it to die and depend on imports."
But as far as he's concerned, Walter is completely out of his depth.
"He has been a waste of time; he doesn't understand what's going on," Vidal stresses. "He doesn't have a clue. Agriculture is not what he thinks it is at all. If you cannot feed your own people today, and you cannot even export today, how can you say it's vibrant? He must look at the abandoned fields. So in what way is it very productive? If the minister wants to prove his point then he must explain to us, all these productive fields (that once existed), what happen to them?"