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Holness urges Gov't help for farmers

BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large South/Central Bureau myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 03, 2014    

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JUNCTION, St Elizabeth — Opposition Leader Andrew Holness wants "a special intervention" by the Government to meet the back-to-school needs of farming families whose earnings have been wiped out by drought in recent months.

Speaking to journalists during a tour of sections of southern St Elizabeth last Wednesday, Holness said the situation had reached crisis proportions with the consequences likely to last well beyond the return of rain.

By the time of the opposition leader's visit, some communities in southern St Elizabeth had experienced their first rains in as many as four months, in some cases. But, even should the rains persist, farmers pointed out it will take them months to recover from what has been described by many people as the worst drought in living memory.

"I think there is a growing crisis now, farmers are losing their crops and it is just before back-to-school (in September)," Holness said.

"Many of the farmers would have put in crops with the hope that in reaping they would have enough money (for) back-to-school expenses. That is definitely not the case, so there will have to be, in my mind, a special intervention by Government through the Ministry of Agriculture or through the Social Development Commission to meet the back-to-school needs for those small farmers so badly affected by the drought. That, to me, is a first line of response," Holness said.

The opposition leader identified trucking of water for drinking and domestic needs as a "second line of defence" for those worst affected by the drought.

Holness said there should be "a proper trucking mechanism to bring water in the short term, because many homes do not have water, even though they have invested in tanks. The tanks, by now, would have run dry and they simply don't have potable water".

Members of parliament and parish councillors in St Elizabeth and the wider south central Jamaica say millions of dollars are being spent on trucking social (free) water, but such supplies still fall well short of what's needed.

Holness -- accompanied by senior JLP politicians as well as local representatives -- heard numerous horror stories.

Vern Sellers, a farmer of Tryall (above Ballards Valley in South-East St Elizabeth) showed a section of land on which he had invested more than $35,000 in drip irrigation technology to support lettuce. However, he had to abandon the project after his water tank ran dry and trucked water, at $14,000 per load, proved too expensive.

"I start but had to stop... couldn't afford it," Sellers told the Jamaica Observer.

Drip irrigation apart, Sellers and other Tryall farmers said they had lost heavily on a range of crops, including tomatoes, melons, and leafy vegetables planted in the traditional way.

Glyris Dixon, also of Tryall, told the Sunday Observer how she bought "seven truckloads of water" ranging in price from $6,000 to $12,000 to support her vegetable crops, but still lost out as the drought, made worse by mid-summer heat and strong winds, "just dry off everything".

Additionally, the absence of National Water Commission (NWC) running water has forced Dixon and others to buy drinking water to fill their domestic catchment tanks. Often, she said, she had to "help" neighbours.

"People who can't afford to buy the water, you have to help them out... what else you going to do?" she said.

Residents told the Sunday Observer of carefully husbanding water and recycling to "wash foot" and "sponge off".

"We have to tek time with the little water we have," explained Sandra Nelson, whose tank has been dry since April.

While "thankful" for a $250,000 allocation to parish council divisions from the Ministry of Water for trucking at the height of the drought, JLP parish councillors Cetany Holness of the Junction Division and Gregory Myers (Southfield Division) said the needs of the worst-hit areas weren't properly taken into consideration.

To begin with, they said, the same allocation was given to all parish council divisions, although rain had been falling with fair regularity in the parish's north, while the south had been experiencing one of the worst droughts ever.

"I am calling on the minister for more assistance, because the drought is still on in my division," said Cetany Holness.

Myers urged a "comprehensive" approach to the water problems in the south of St Elizabeth and a speedy completion of the Essex Valley water project, which has been stalled for years. The project, when completed, is expected to provide NWC running water for much of South-East St Elizabeth.

Former Water Minister and shadow spokesman on water, Horace Chang said the Portia Simpson Miller's People's National Party (PNP) Government had delayed too long in implementing the project, which was first launched in 2001.

"When we (JLP) left in 2011, the pipes were as far as Nain ... nothing has been done in three years and that's the kind of failure to act decisively (that is) causing the problem," said Chang. "These people (of South St Elizabeth) are hard-working and very creative and they need the water... they need the water and they need it fast."

Currently only about 10 per cent of South East St Elizabeth is estimated to be receiving NWC water. Across the parish, less than half of households receive NWC running water.

Former member of parliament for South East St Elizabeth and JLP caretaker for the constituency Frank Witter, as well as shadow spokesman on agriculture and North West St Elizabeth MP JC Hutchinson, spoke of developing "catchment ponds" using "pond liners" to augment water supplies in farming areas.

The opposition leader's tour also reached Dalton in the hills of the Malvern Division, where fire spurred by the drought has caused havoc to farmlands and threatened homes in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, heavy rains the previous evening had doused bush fires, but the evidence -- manifested in many acres of scorched farmland and forest -- remained.

Farmers told Andrew Holness and his party that they had lost millions of dollars in projected earnings as a result of fires. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, in many cases, fires were started by farmers clearing land. In recent weeks there have been persistent calls from the fire department and other authorities for farmers to desist from the dangerous and illegal "slash and burn" practice.

Yet, as the Sunday Observer team left the Dalton/St Mary's area of South East St Elizabeth on Wednesday, a group of farmers preparing farmland in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's heavy showers were seen clearing bush and scrub with fire.

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