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Rural growth through agro-parks — a CaPRI perspective

Wednesday, March 26, 2014    

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IN the Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies filed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in support of its arguments for a loan agreement, the Jamaican Government outlined its commitment to partnering with the private sector for the establishment of nine agro-parks to "stabilise the agricultural supply chain, deepen inter-industry linkages, increase competitive import substitution, and activate unutilised rural land and labour". As a result, the Government has committed approximately $1.1 billion for investments in these parks and, to date, three of these nine agro-parks, namely Amity Hall in St Catherine, Ebony Park in Clarendon, and Plantain Garden in St Thomas have started productive activity. The Government has also promised that, before the end of this fiscal year, two other parks will be brought under production, namely Meylersfield in Westmoreland and Ettingdon in Trelawny.

Nevertheless, the concept of agro-parks has been questioned by many, including farmers, who had expected to be beneficiaries of this concept heralded as strategic and self-sustaining for rural life. To address this issue, the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI) warns against ignoring international best practices in developing these parks and carefully answers two questions:

1) What is an agro-park as defined globally and by the Jamaican Government?

2) What are the benefits that can accrue from their creation?

A global view

According to Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), an agricultural park (or agro-park) is a combination of a working farm and a municipal park that can serve as a transition or buffer zone between urban and agricultural uses. Agro-parks around the world have been designed for multiple uses that accommodate small farms, public areas and natural habitat. They allow small farmers access to secure land and local markets, provide fresh

food, and are an educational, environmental, and aesthetic amenity for nearby communities. The naming of the concept as a "park" is intended to convey the role an agro-park plays in open space preservation. While the term suggests the permanent land conservation and recreational use exemplified by the public park, it also evokes the traditional model of a business park, where multiple

tenants operate under a common management structure.

Agro-parks in the Jamaican context

But is this what the current Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke means when he speaks of agro-parks, or was this what the former Minister of Agriculture Dr Christopher Tufton meant when he announced his intention to establish agro-parks?

In an attempt to provide clarity on the concept, Minister Clarke, in an article he wrote entitled, Agro-parks: The Nuts and Bolts printed in the Sunday Gleaner dated May 26, 2013, defines an agro-park as "an area of intensive agricultural production which seeks to integrate every facet of the agricultural value chain from pre-production activities (irrigation, drainage, road and land-clearing activities) to production, post-harvest handling and marketing". Similarly, Everton Spencer, chief executive officer of Agro-Investment Corporation (AIC), the agriculture ministry's investment arm, defines an agro-park as "an area of intensive agricultural production where the AIC seeks to integrate all the facets during the agricultural value chain, from pre-production, such as irrigation,

land clearing, etc, to production, marketing, and post-harvest handling".

These definitions are undoubtedly appropriate to the Jamaican context as they encapsulate the country's particular challenges and the need, as prescribed in the IMF agreement, to improve rural life through more productive value chain usage of agricultural land and labour utilisation. However, to ensure that these nine agro-parks are successful, the government must map the entire value chain process in each park so that farmers are trained in critical areas of land preparation, water management, crop production, reaping, transportation, and storage while making sure that farmers' output becomes the agro-processors input to create high-quality branded products for local and international markets.

Farmers, who for the most part are not formally trained but have learnt through a process of apprenticeship, will therefore need technical support in all these areas as well as the infrastructure to complement the crop production process and the marketing of final output, which could be provided by agencies of Government such as the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) and the National Irrigation Commission (NIC). Furthermore, these agro-parks would need a strategy to integrate crops into further processing

and storage.

Equally important to highlight is that agro-parks across the world have been developed and managed under a range of models and agreements. In most cases, a public agency would usually have jurisdiction over the agro-park as a whole and then work with a partner that would have the role of development, management and/or operations of the park. Although Minister Clarke highlighted in his 2013-2014 Budget Debate presentation on May 8, 2013 that these agro-parks were being developed jointly using public private initiative, the Jamaican Government would be well advised not to attempt to be managers of these agro-parks, but rather to adopt global best practices of integrating the operations of these parks under a private-public sector partnership arrangement, especially since, as history has shown, going it alone usually leads to waste and inefficiencies. There will always be the temptation for Government to provide subsidies and expect nothing in return creating long-term negative consequences for taxpayers. Agro-parks should also be integrated into critically needed land reform since Jamaica still has a major challenge with underutilised land due to no legal proof of ownership. The much heralded Land Administration and Management Programme (LAMP) should also be twinned with those areas included in the agro-parks.

It therefore means that if all nine agro-parks are designed and managed to meet public objectives of ecosystem function and agricultural interest, as outlined above, then these hubs for value addition can:

1. Preserve farmlands

2. Increase public access to and education about food preparation

3. Provide assistance to farmers through providing access to land and or "farm incubation" and training possibilities

4. Act as a natural reserve area that provide valuable habitat and offer interpretive programming to educate about ecosystems, watersheds

and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices and,

5. Provide ways of financing park operations through programming, farm leases, agriculture production and events.

This piece was submitted by Dr Christopher Tufton, who is a co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, which is a University of the West Indies-based policy think tank. Comments at: info@capricaribbean.org

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