YOU COULD HEAR the frustration in the voice. "Uncle Roger" was at the end of his patience. He didn't know what to do with praedial larceny, aka tiefing of food crops and livestock by robbers reaping where they had not sown. It is time to tell the nation the harsh truth. Praedial larceny is not an agricultural matter, he said. It is a police matter and a very serious one at that. I agree with him. True, it is not as dramatic and colourful as lotto scamming and other assorted evils. It is not as blood-curdling as murder, but if you want to stretch an analogy, it is taking lives too. It is more of a subject for action than discussion. Time to stop talking and do something.
Uncle Roger (Minister of Agriculture) Clarke, who has been a farmer long before he became a politician, is now fed up. He was on the radio telling the nation that it is time we awoke to the facts. Praedial larceny is bleeding the nation. It is the police, not the farmers, who should find a way to take care of it, if the society is to thrive.
But take care of it how, the cops may ask? As if they didn't have enough to do, coping with the murderers and the robbers and the abusers and all the rest who make our lives a daily hell. The theft of "one and two goats and cows, some yam, "pitaytah" and pumpkin, are small potatoes in some people's eyes. It is time to acknowledge that praedial larceny brings its own kind of grief. The police will need more personnel, more boots on the ground, as they say in war language, to track down the thieves of produce and livestock which often have no identifying marks. Sadly, I believe, real police action is not going to happen anytime soon. There is no external pressure to force us to make sense of the mantra: "Grow what we eat, eat what we grow". We grow, yes, but others are eating.
The solution, some say, should be community vigilance (not vigilantes), more information passed to the police and a special division of the Constabulary fully equipped to eradicate this scourge. The farmers, the weary victims, will kiss-teet and tell you, "waste-a-time. Police nuh interested."
I'M NOT A FARMER (you may have guessed by now). The few root-a-cane in my yard do not make me a cane farmer, eligible for a post-hurricane loan, neither do the few bushes of gungo peas, although there's a certain thrill knowing that our Sunday meal is enriched because of the "output" from our modest 'chenks' of land, currently awaiting increased property tax. (But that's another story). So, if I'm no big farmer, why "am I nyamming up meself" over something which I cannot control? Because I have been moved by the stories which I've got first-hand from persons who put their all into planting, only to find that thieves have cleaned them out before market day.
Last week, an elderly lady from the upper reaches of Manchester told me how she and her husband sustain themselves by growing and selling in the market a variety of fruits which have a high reputation for quality and regular sales.
Shortly before our conversation, she and her husband woke up to find that the reapers had come in overnight. They had cleaned out the fields, sparing nothing. All of what was to be sold at market to pay for the sugar, flour, rice and other necessities, was gone ... all of it. Reports have it that a van was seen speeding away from the farm, laden with fruits. There was nothing the elderly farmers could do except bemoan the level of dishonesty in which the nation is engulfed and the poverty which is facing them.
We do not always make the connection about how farmers struggle to support themselves from the return of their labour while thieves cream off the best. A very wise man once rebuked me when I was bitching about the high price of foodstuffs in the market. He delivered the sharp reminder that the farmers had to pay the inflated prices for the supermarket foodstuffs just like everybody else, despite their earning power reduced by robbery. How does an elderly couple meet their obligations?
ON THE SAME DAY that the lady from the Manchester hills told me her story, a man also called to relate how his crop of carefully tended bananas, which were pre-sold, were nowhere to be seen on the morning of reaping. The criminals had done their harvesting in the dead of night. So as not to lose business, the farmer had to buy bananas on the open market, at the prevailing highly-inflated prices and sell them at a loss, just to save a contract. Banana production is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. In the meantime, under-developed, force-ripened fruit can fetch up to $500 a dozen, despite looking like the decapitated fingers of a horror
THE NAIVE PUBLIC, MEANWHILE, has its own ideas of farming as an instant prescription for what ails us. How often do you hear it...round up the boys on street corners in town and pack them off to the country "to farm". The idea is that anybody can make things grow. So what if you can't even read the instructions on how to use toxic substances safely, or how to plant seeds? "Cho man. Mek de boys farm". It's the same misguided innocence with which we treat praedial larceny.
We still haven't wrapped our heads around the concept of well-organised criminal activity with skilful robbers fleecing hard-working people of their earnings. There are many stories which fully confirm this. I know a gentleman who went into growing special mangoes for export. From his verandah, he witnessed a truck with workers driving into his orchard one Sunday afternoon. By the time he could summon "the troops", the truck had been loaded up and driven away. The crop was almost cleaned out. The loss was great. The bank, which had provided the loan for the project, showed
no patience. The export dream ended.
SIMILAR STORIES ABOUND of other ventures, stripped down to nothing but a farmer left in debt, not only plant material gone but equipment and implements. I've come to agree with Uncle Roger: praedial larceny is big, bad business. As to the crime, if there were no buyers, there would be no sellers. Everybody knows that, but farmers still lose. It needs a well-organised strategy by experienced crime fighters to set the bait, and see what is caught. A small man cannot, by himself, steal over 20 head of cattle in one swoop, as happened recently. Despite the public reaction, to this day nothing further has been heard of it. The Jamaica Agricultural Society's receipt book system is a nice concept, but thieves are not known to be nice, so they're beating that too.
WICKEDEST WICKEDNESS: The man on the run who conned a group of St Thomas farmers into believing that he could sell their produce in the export market, soon found that he'd made off with well over a million dollars of produce. He should be hunted down like any other worthless dawg. Somebody must know something. Bring in the cops, for real!