142 farmers formally settled on plots of land in Bernard Lodge
Prime Minister Andrew Holness addresses the House of Representatives on October 5 (Photo: JIS)

PRIME Minister Andrew Holness says, to date, 142 farmers have been orderly and formally settled on plots of land as part of the Bernard Lodge Development Plan in St Catherine.

Providing an update on the plan in the House of Representatives on October 5, Holness informed that SCJ Holdings has paid more than $650 million in compensation to the farmers.

"Members would be aware that to meet the requirements of the development master plan and regularise the informal and ad hoc occupation of the lands, a structured and orderly settlement plan was undertaken that included relocation, formalisation of leases, and payment arrangements associated with those leases and assessment of cost associated with this exercise," he said.

The prime minister noted that additional works, including expansion of storm water drains, farm road rehabilitation, among others, are ongoing.

"The cost of land clearance and preparation, farm road construction and rehabilitation, the opening and expansion of storm water drains, the provision of electricity and the construction of an irrigation system have also been borne by the SCJ, and work is ongoing," he said.

Holness informed that irrigation water is now provided to farmers by the Rio Cobre canal system, adding that the cost for the time being is absorbed by the SCJ until the construction of a modern pressurised irrigation system is completed.

"We have started the engineering designs already," the prime minister said, noting that one of the two proposed reservoirs is already constructed to ensure an uninterrupted supply of irrigation water.

"These reservoirs will have a combined capacity of 10 million gallons. Already, many of the farmers are in full production, with vendors and other persons visiting the farms on a regular basis to purchase produce for retail and domestic use," Holness said.

He pointed out that there is a well-structured agro park that has the potential to become a model for agricultural development in the Caribbean.

"I visited it, Madam Speaker, and I am very pleased to see how former sugar lands have been transitioned into other forms of agriculture," Holness said.

He noted that the lands, which have been underutilised for many years, were becoming a location for illegal dumping, illegal sandmining, and even for criminals.

Cabinet appointed an Enterprise Team, chaired by chartered accountant Linval Freeman, to supervise the divestment of government-owned lands within the Greater Bernard Lodge Development in St Catherine.

They commenced work in late January 2021 with the aim of divesting the development lands in phases.

To date, two phases have been successfully completed, with a third now in progress.

The Development Bank of Jamaica monitors and gives technical support to the Enterprise Team to ensure that the divestment is in keeping with government policy and governance standards.

The Greater Bernard Lodge Development Plan will create an integrated community of 5,400 acres of land, of which 3,027 acres are dedicated to agriculture and the remaining designated to housing, light industrial and commercial activities, social services, open and recreational space, and an urban centre.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Holness said, so far, the Cabinet has approved the sale of some 1,225 acres of land for mixed residential, commercial, and light industrial purposes to seven different developers.

"Cabinet has also approved the transfer of 102 acres of land to the National Housing Trust and the Housing Agency of Jamaica at zero cost as part of efforts to lower the cost of housing to persons of limited means. To date, gross earnings from land sales are expected to exceed $3.8 billion," he noted.

The prime minister said SCJ Holdings Limited has substantial legacy obligations of more than $2 billion, incurred in connection with the divestment of the government-owned sugar estates and significant operating costs associated with the maintenance and securing of unused properties.

He informed that the net proceeds of the Bernard Lodge land sales will be applied in clearing these obligations, and the divestment of the properties will lower SCJ's operating cost and place the organisation in a stronger financial position.

"Aside from its primary duty in managing the sugar lands, it also has an obligation to develop agriculture and other uses for land they own. Therefore, the SCJ has undertaken significant expenditure to improve agricultural infrastructure in the master plan area in payment of compensation to farmers and the cost associated with land preparation and the re-establishment of farmers," he said.

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