Election Debate: The State of the Basic Industry
There are people to whom agriculture feels like a religion, something they were born into, something sacred, something inherited, their very reason for being. It runs in their veins, it's in their DNA, even.
Consider, for example, Raymond Austrie. He's a former agricultural officer, a former permanent secretary in the ministry of agriculture. He studied agriculture at the secondary and tertiary levels and one of the three master's degrees is in agricultural economics.
Not only does Austrie live agriculture, it lives in him.
"I have been involved in agriculture all my life from the time I was a boy growing up in La Plaine," he told The Sun.
His father worked with the ministry doing propagation and as a foreman on some of the large estates.
"So I had my first exposure from about the age of five."
Today, Austrie remains very much involved, producing and ripening bananas, as well growing other crops. If anyone knows about the state of the industry, it is Raymond Austrie.
"Agriculture is in decline. That's a summarization of the whole matter. It's in a state of decline," he argued.
The government continues to insist that the sector is doing well with its support. In his 2013 independence address, the prime minister devoted several minutes to the subject, boasting of government's investments in agriculture and a five per cent growth in 2012.
"Government has had the foresight, and has invested heavily in the infrastructure required for successfully conducting trade in agricultural commodities," the prime minister said, adding important areas like transportation and agro-processing were also being looked after.
"An allocation of $4.0 million was made in this year`s budget to go towards the purchase of an appropriate vessel for transporting agricultural and other products… to encourage the emergence of other products and new industries, government, within the next three months, will establish a fund for innovation and development in agro industry."
But the people on the ground, like Austrie and Cuthbert Vidal, who cultivates on 40 acres in the height of Salisbury, are seeing the opposite. What they see is a sector in decline.
"(An) analysis of the performance of the sector in terms of its contribution to GDP, employment, export performance, all of this is in relative decline. The data shows a lot of instability in key indicators. It's really quite bad and something needs to be done," said Austrie, who recently reviewed the government's policy on agriculture.
"Our agriculture is in a very, very sorry state but those people who are responsible don't seem to care," added Vidal.
To be fair to this administration, said Austrie, they didn't start the slide, but they sure have pressed the accelerator.
"To their credit, it didn't begin with them but under this administration the decline has escalated."
So what is missing? The lack of a clear policy said both Austrie and Vidal, as well as Athie Martin, the agriculturist and former agriculture minister.
"We have not had a clear (policy) statement on agriculture, on where we want to go, in the past decade," Martin complained.
"We need to really work out a clear policy for the sector in terms of a vision for agriculture, where do we see agriculture, what is the role of agriculture in the economy," added Austrie who has proposed a "balanced growth" model.
Armed with data showing a "very, very strong correlation" between growth in agriculture and economic growth, the former permanent secretary suggested a rethink of the attitude towards the sector, and the banana industry, in particular.
"There is also a very strong correlation between banana production and GDP performance, not only the economy on a whole but also the agriculture sector. We like to say move away from bananas, but the thing that we ignore is that there is a strong correlation between banana production and the growth of agriculture," he stated. "So we need to develop a clear policy, a policy that takes into consideration the markets, and outputs."
It's a policy, he said, that must also consider other sectors of the industry and investment in critical areas. It's a policy, added Martin, that exploits the expertise of people like Austrie and Vidal, and removes the level of politics from agriculture that has led to the appointment of unsuitable persons to top positions in agriculture.
All three farmers agreed that the sector must be the main economic driver, in partnership with other areas of the economy.
"Don't matter how you look at it, you can't get away from the fact that we have been an agricultural country and agriculture will continue to be important," Austrie told The Sun.
"Agriculture is one thing that can swing Dominica's (economy)," added Vidal. "If you do not want to put money into agriculture…you cannot blame the people who are not producing so much. You have to blame the system. You need to have a policy and we have no agriculture policy."