The "Agricultural Instigator" and the Salisbury Protest
Cuthbert J. Vidal, a prominent farmer of Salisbury, gives his perspective on the Salisbury riots and its causes
Dominica, Oh Dominica, the land of my birth. For a long time now, and more so, today, the call is going out to identify things by their names. Too often truth, honesty, integrity and principles are shoved away.
The protest action by farmers of Salisbury on Monday, 11th May 2015, which resulted in serious encounter between the protesters and the Dominica law enforcement officers, opened not only a can of worms, but some alleged prohibited canisters.
As always, there are far more questions as answers. I have always tried to live up to my Alma Mater's moto which is "A Sound Mind in a Sound Body". Surely it was responsible for shaping my character and integrity. On the other hand, some men choose to display their psycho pathetic behaviour or maybe they are suffering from chronic encephalitis and confusing it with reverse psychology.
The day of the protest action, I was there. While waiting for the matter to be resolved, somebody whispered to me, that one of the radio stations had reported that I was one of the instigators!
Farming is my life; it is in my blood
Indeed I supported the protest action. As a practicing farmer, and one who have carved my name in Dominica's agriculture, I saw it as my responsibility. I have lived my entire life in agriculture, for agriculture, of agriculture and with agriculture.
A farmer's life is really hard. According to one song writer, "let me tell you why". In the Zion there is more harvester than planters, in the market "is more blows" on farmers and today we find ourselves under siege from those who are elected to support and facilitate the farmers' endeavours. The farming business is plagued with so many uncertainties and it is extremely risky.
The art of food production requires waging war against numerous pests and diseases, both present and to come. All kinds of weather conditions which include, but not limited to, droughts, floods, hurricanes, freezing conditions and the threat of Climate Change, fluctuating market conditions, poor, inappropriate and the unavailability of transportation. Horrible roads or sometimes lack of accessibility can be a farmer's nightmare. Shortages of inputs, planting materials and other farm necessities can result in total failure.
The world knows that I have been indoctrinated into the farming business even before attending primary school. As a young lad, I assisted my parents and many other farmers in their farming endeavours. At a very early age, I learnt to graft and top-work plants. With that skill I grafted many trees particularly mangoes in the village free of charge.
I studied the art and science of agriculture at the Jamaica School of Agriculture. At that institution, I received the 1975 Livestock Award for the most outstanding student for the year. The following year, I was publicly named as a School Farm Demonstrator; my role was to assist in passing my knowledge to the junior students while I was still a student. In 1976, I graduated with honours.
I served the Ministry of Agriculture for 20 years in several positions which included Agricultural Extension Officer, Agricultural Assistant Officer and Livestock Development Officer.
As a farmer, I have fed hundreds of people over the years. Presently, I am farming more than forty acres of land. My personal farm road was built entirely from my resources and wholly maintained by me for the last thirty years; it is almost a mile long. A few years ago, I lost over 3,000 citrus bearing trees because of diseases. In recent years, I have established well over 4,000 cocoa plants, 800 oranges and 500 limes trees. The farm has well over 300 bearing Julie mango plants, 400 bearing avocado trees, well over 200 young bearing coconut trees and many other crops including bananas and plantain.
The above is not intended to blow my own trumpet and really it is much bigger than just that. Throughout the last thirty years many young lads have spent time on the farm, not as child labour but instead enjoying the freedom it offers, learning the basics, with the knowledge that a mentor is present, and partaking in the comradeship of the workers. Also there is much to eat and drink, enough to take home, and the knowledge that there is surely an ice-cream at the end of the fun day. I state all these facts because I believe that this qualifies to be called an Instigator! Again, most respectfully, I believe that this matter is much bigger than me.
Salisbury before the 11 May protest
Salisbury, sometimes referred to as 'Bawi', is a West Coast community located almost midway between Roseau to the south and Portsmouth to the north. It is perched on a hillside right between the Macousherie and Batalie Rivers. We do not know exactly how many people who live in the village at this time because we are awaiting the result of the last census held over five years ago.
Salisbury's history is quite interesting; however, we will limit our attention to the agricultural aspect of the community. However, before ploughing into the main stream, a very pertinent question surfaces - the urge for using the word hate we will allow to rest, but only for a while. Instead, we pose this question: why do so many dislike Salisbury so bitterly to a point where they are willing to sacrifice the community?
One would ask, is it because Salisbury sits on the cradle of our Independence declaration? Yes, it was in Salisbury that the Independence of Dominica was declared. Maybe because it is on this rock we feed this nation. Salisbury has played an important role of feeding the nation for decades. Unlike many other communities, Salisbury has depended heavily on farming as a serious means of livelihood. Farming has, and continues to play, an integral part in its development and sustenance.
Salisbury is ideally location to satisfy that demand. The land experiences either dry, intermediate or wet conditions depending on its height above sea level. All the same, it is the hardworking quality and resilient attributes of its people that have made the community so productive.
Space does not permit me to outline details in this article; however, it is important to highlight some of the major successes. At the inception of shipping of bananas to England, Salisbury was the only port beside Roseau and Portsmouth where the ship would dock to load bananas. At one time, Salisbury recorded at least 20 ox-driven mills to crush sugarcane to produced cane syrup. At another period, it was a major producer of sugarcane for the factories of Macouchrie and Belfast and even as far as Bagatelle.
In the past, Salisbury was a large producer of vanilla, cocoa, coffee, limes and other crops. In recent times it has held the number one position in banana and grapefruit production and possible others including citrus, mangoes, avocadoes, christophenes, passion fruits, and many others. At one time and for many years, Salisbury controlled the Roseau, and to some extent, the Portsmouth market. It is still said that Salisbury produces the best dasheen in Dominica.
Crops such as yams, sweet potatoes, tannias, pumpkins and cabbages were produced in great quantities. Because of the use of ox-driven mills, the spin-over of bulls were very high; the village also produced beef, goats, sheep, pigs and even poultry. Needless to say, the greatest impact was felt in the production of vegetables.
All Dominicans know the tomato, cucumber, pepper and melon story. There was a time when as many as 20 pickups, laden with melons, would be dispatched to market on a Saturday; at the end of the day everybody would be back with enough daylight left to check the sales. Alas, nowadays it takes three days to sell one pickup- load of melon.
A farming community par excellence
Needless to say, it is in Salisbury that the greenhouse technology took root because we were the pioneers. Again it was in Salisbury that the various concepts of irrigation mushroomed. This includes piping water from many miles inland.
Sometimes, one would ask what made these activities possible. And the answer is that practically everybody in the community was involved in one way or another. The women and children were on board. Women, in many cases, were even more determined than the men. The youngsters would look forward to the rainy season to plant what they call their DAWAY. These "daways" would provide the funds to enjoy Fete BAWI in October.
These production drives were not limited to just the heights of Salisbury. The heights of Macouchrie Estate called Gros Morne is also well established by the people of Salisbury. In addition, farmers from Salisbury bought lands all the way south as far as Layou Park, Crown Reba and others. They also moved north as far as Syndicate. Farmers from these areas are also very innovative in the use of modern equipment in their production system.
Ownership of land creates a very strong sense of security and independence. For instance, in spite of the fact that my family owns land, I have three sons, and all three have bought, owned, and operated their own lands. Sad to say, it is not often that farmers receive recognition for their efforts. Again, in my case, I was nominated by the Division of Agriculture two years ago for an award. However, the powers said "no way".
The amount of pressure imposed on the people of Salisbury, is not limited to only agriculture. In the last ten to fifteen years, nothing positive have gone to Salisbury. Culture is high on the country's agenda, but Salisbury is left to fend for itself for Carnival and even Reunion Year Celebrations. The list is very long, but nothing has been done in education, tourism, culture, agriculture, and many other areas. The people have been unduly punished mercilessly for a very long time. Therefore, it is not just for the poor state of the roads that Salisbury is aching.
As we begin talking about Salisbury feeder road, allow me at the inception to include the Machousherie to Gros Morne and Grand Labou road. However, for the purpose of this article, we will dwell on the road from Salisbury village. It winds its way along the hillsides and mountain range to a distance of about five miles to an elevation of about 2000 feet above sea level. From there it goes down the valley towards Petite Macouchrie and further south towards Carholm and down the Cuba road.
A substantial part of the road was built with famers' sweat and blood. Also, the farmers contributed a considerable amount of the other resources. Leading from this feeder road is at least 22 access roads. Extending from these access roads are the farm roads. Both access and farm roads were built practically by the effort and resources of the farmers.
Once more, allow me to point out that two of these access roads in particular, namely the Powell and Fond Cocoa roads, I played a direct role. Firstly, the Powell road, together with the Coconut Rehabilitation Programme, we did about ½ mile, and another ½ mile was added by the farmers and well-wishers. I was the chief instigator. For a period of more than 30 years, we the farmers of the Fond Cocoa road built and maintained that road. This road is about two miles long, and again, I am one of the main instigators, not forgetting that my own farm road is about a mile long; built by me and maintained by me; therefore, I know about road maintenance.
It is very interesting to note that the call is for the repair of that one feeder road; the other 22 access roads and the farm road are hardly mentioned. Naturally, if the integrity of the feeder road is undermined, so does the dependant ones.
The geography of the area is very difficult. The land is rather undulating and therefore gives rise to many "fonds" and as many "mornes". As a matter of fact, sometimes people ask how is it possible to farm on some of the slopes which we have cultivated.
Immediately, there comes the need for prudent road maintenance. The road in question was built long before Mr. Skerrit. Before Mr. Skerrit, there were road supervisors, road engineers and whatever. For many years we have not seen maintenance work. The call continued to go out for road maintenance, but to no avail.
Long before it got into this unbearable condition, not only that farmers obtain their livelihood from the use of the road, but many others such as hikers, nature admirers, sightseers, cars and coasters involved in the tourist business would use the road. It was through neglect, bad planning, and pure malice thatthe road was abandoned. Again this created undue hardship, loss of income, and frustration, and a sense of economic devastation to the people.
A painful existence
So many could not bear it! Some lost their entire investment. A few migrated; several found other means of sustaining themselves. But a few persevered. They saw conditions worsen. There's a saying that in numbers there is strength. However, the few who remained had to struggle even harder. They saw trees (not bushes) growing where once was paved roads. They saw boulders as big as houses where once were paved roads, and the areas looked more like a wadi than motorable roads.
We made several efforts to alert the authorities to the situation. About two years ago a drive-around-the ministry protest was carried out to sensitize the ministers concerned. The PM responded by saying that by the second quarter work would commence. Once again quarters exceeded to wholes. The way the PM talk about Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, reminds people of a famous Calypso Road March by the Mighty DBS. We do know about BAM, BAM.
Surely, this road was built long before the PM and the BAM. While we await the BAM, we are asking Government to do some temporary repair on the near-impossible-to-navigate parts of the road. Certainly this would pacify things to some extent. When people are oppressed and push to their limit, it certainly will give way at some point.
The siege of 11th May 2015
The confrontation between the resilient farmers, their supporters and between the obstinate and stubborn high-headed Government officials of Dominica had absolutely nothing to do with roads. Not the feeder road, nor the E.O. LeBlanc Highway or any other. As far as the law enforcement officers are concerned, they were used, or better yet, compromised.
The action that the protesters took, in the view of many persons, was the long awaited excuse that the Government wanted to attack with the intent to maim or kill the residents of Salisbury. Again, one will ask what the peaceful non-violent people did to deserve such treatment. Many said it is political. If so, then I say this could only be childish. In the past general elections, the Salisbury constituency has elected Labour, Labour, Labour, Freedom, Freedom, UWP, UWP, UWP and UWP, (not necessarily in this order). However, and in any case, they had it for Salisbury.
In all democratic systems the people do have their right and therefore they do have the right to express these rights. (To be continued)
As stated earlier, the people were neglected and abandoned for much too long. ON that fateful day of Monday, the 11th May, 2015, the people made a profound statement. The main road from Roseau to Portsmouth, just about the junction entering the Salisbury village, the protesters blocked that road with any and all they could find. This was only intended to draw the attention of the Government.
The protesters were not armed. Their only demand was to meet with at least two Government ministers, namely the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Communication and Works. Clearly, the intention was to dialogue and to determine what action would be taken regarding the feeder roads.
Very early in the day the protesters were approached by uniformed and plain clothes police officers. Indeed, they were not there to serve or keep the peace. They were armed with all kinds of battle field guns and others. It would appear that their instruction was to dismantle that thing at the embryonic stage. Apparent body language indicated that not all the law enforcement officers understood the instruction or were not in complete agreement with what they were told to perform. At this stage, let me publicly compliment the police for the constraint which they exercised during the better part of the day.
Having made that statement, I believe that the events which unfolded that day left much to be desired. For instance, this confrontation should never have lasted that long. As a matter of fact, it should not have started. Again the Police were used as negotiators. That should never be implanted. The Government officials refused to come down from their high horses. It is a well-known fact that matter could have been resolved within a few hours after it started. Police who are armed with guns and other weapons will certainly be a source of provocation, and intimidation to the protesters. When provoked the obvious reaction is to retaliate.
The requests of the people were not unreasonable. I kept wondering what could delay or prevent the presence of the ministers. As a matter of fact it was a wonderful opportunity for the newly appointed Minister of Agriculture to interact with the farmers. At that very junction is housed the district agricultural office, a perfect spot for a meeting.
From the time the road became blocked, and then the obstruction hindered all road users travelling North and South on the highway. The need for resolving that matter became more crucial and it was not limited to Salisbury. In that case, the situation became a National issue. At one point the police informed the protesters to select a delegation of 10 persons to meet with the ministers concerned in Roseau. Naturally that was turned down. Disputes are best settled in the area where the problem is situated.
Throughout the day, events continued to unfold, but with no solution. One thing was certain, Salisbury became increasingly under siege. They came from sea, via the Coast Guard vessel. Was that a show of force or superiority? They came on land on their many vehicles. Later they came by air in the form of toxic gas, or so it is alleged.
It is commonly said that after a storm comes a calm. Well this time the reverse was true. It was after a noticeable calm that they came. Dressed in their battle gear and in full force they attacked the protesters. It was guns, rubber bullets, live bullets, and toxic gas. The protesters retaliated with stones, rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails.
The sizeable crowd included the protesters, their supporters, curious onlookers, passers-by, women and children of all ages. Undoubtedly the order was given to attack and attack they did. Ground zero was taken. Even after the perimeter was secured, the attacking forces kept advancing. They went into people's homes with their toxic gases and whatever, beyond the war zone. The invading forces did not have it all their way because the protesters retaliated with similar aggression.
During the stand-off on the road, the situation was very volatile and it was the ideal environment for evil spirits to flourish. I saw many manifestations of such evil spirits. However, they did not have it all their way. The protective spirits were very busy on that day. Although there were a number of injuries, but there was sufficient fuel not only to shed blood but death.
In spite of the fact that the police were solely responsible for the escalation of the incident, these officers themselves faced some serious missiles. Some of these projectiles could have caused serious injuries and even death. They too have families; they have children, parents and they need to keep their jobs. It was a relief that not much damage was done because we know most of them, or one of their relatives, and they all live among us.
The night of that Monday, the community was bombarded with police activity, another cause for aroused emotion and increasing the stress factor. The following day, the Prime Minister hastily called a press conference. The event of the day before seemed negligible to him. He did not mention the injuries of the lawmen and damages to their equipment and villagers of Salisbury and other persons affected by the confrontation appeared to be small maters.
Interestingly, he mentioned a town-hall meeting. Where was that town hall before the storm? Did I hear him say "whether they like it or not"? Probably the intention was to round-up the villagers and herd them as cattle.
Unless and until man begin to use another source of fuel instead of food, then there will be the need for the most important profession on earth, which is farming. Roads, and that means good, proper, and motorable roads will always be a key component in the food production system.
Salisbury will continue to play a major role towards this venture. Food production is not only a major part of their livelihood; it is also integral part of our heritage.
The struggle continues.
The drama which developed that day was like a Hollywood movie. It was certainly uncalled for, unnecessary and should never have happened. As a matter of fact, this does not reflect well on the people of Dominica and it should never be allowed to happen again.