Jeffrey Town farmers warn thieves about value of the cutlass
In this 2017 file photo police on a praedial larceny operation inspect the messy yard where an illegal slaughter house was being operated. (Photo: Llewellyn Wynter)

The cutlass used to weed may be the same one to cause thieves to bleed.

That is if farmers continue to lose their life's work to praedial larceny.

Last year, the Ministry of Agriculture pointed to losses to farmers of more than $5 billion annually, and now, to its wits' end, the St Mary-based Jeffrey Town Farmers' Association says it is a rampant issue in their neck of the woods.

"It is very frustrating when a farmer looks at the police and say, 'Well, it looks like the only answer we have is to kill them [thieves].' The police will say, 'No, you can't do that,' and the farmers will respond, 'Should I just lie down and carry my children to the station for you to feed them?' That is how desperate it is getting. Desperation!" Wordsworth Gordon, chairman of the association, told the Jamaica Observer.

GORDON... our biggest lick we are getting up here in the St Mary area is praedial larceny.

"Some farmers will shout out and say that it looks like the police want to draw yellow tape because they're not saying anything to help us. And it is not like the police are not trying to do anything to help us... they just don't have the resources to do it," Gordon continued.

Gordon further lamented that even natural disasters are not as devastating as criminals who raid farms and take off with livestock and crops that cost farmers thousands of dollars to maintain.

"We had tropical storms and they didn't cost too much damage in the sense of great loss. But people lose their crops because people steal them; they use the opportunity through the hurricanes to remove them from the fields. Our biggest lick we are getting up here in the St Mary area is praedial larceny. It is a serious thing."

The Praedial Larceny Prevention Coordination Unit (PLPU) was commissioned into service on March 2, 2015. The unit is a collaboration between the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Ministry of National Security to curtail the theft of agricultural produce across the length and breadth of Jamaica. The unit comprises an administrative arm which is housed inside the agriculture ministry and an enforcement arm led by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF).

Also partnering with the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), the Rural Development Authority (RADA), Ministry of Health (MOH), Crime Stop and other stakeholders, the PLPU's main objective is "to curtail praedial larceny and other farm theft across the island".

Additionally, according to the agriculture ministry, with the JCF at the forefront of the anti-praedial larceny charge, "the unit can mobilise members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force and civil society through farmers groups, agencies and organisations to significantly reduce the theft and illegal distribution of farm produce."

However, Gordon told the Sunday Observer that authorities are not able to effectively fight farm theft, which the agriculture ministry considers a critical deterrent to the development of rural communities especially, and consequently, national development.

"No, they are not," Gordon stated categorically.

"I am a JP [justice of the peace] and I go to the police station, I organise meetings with the community and got the police involved. I even got a praedial larceny unit from Kingston to come to the meeting. We watch our farms and we know the days when they normally steal. When we proposed a farm watch to coordinate with the police to catch the thieves… even with all of those suggestions, there are arguments that can't make them happen," he said.

Gordon added that arguments include "lack of resources for the police officers, they don't have vehicles, they can't move fast enough, they need private cars to come; we have to go and pick them up. Things like that. If we are going to do something about praedial larceny, you have to put the resources in to deal with it."

A total of 3,849 special operations/raids were conducted, 30 farm watch groups were established, 142 arrests were made relating to breaches of the relevant legislation, and 52 praedial larceny-related offences were reported officially in 2022/23.

This was disclosed by then Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Pearnel Charles Jr as he made his contribution to the 2023/24 Sectoral Debate in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

Gordon added: "When the breeze blows or the sun dries it up, you accept that it is God's work. But when a man destroys your field, it is very difficult to cope with and that has been happening all around us at regular intervals."

Late last year, in a release, the JCF said, "As we seek to protect, serve and reassure members of the agricultural sector and the general population," creating identity by ensuring that special markings are placed on animals, ensuring that premises are properly lit especially around the perimeter of farms, and having fencing that defines property boundaries and restrict access to people and animals that may trespass on property were some safety tips to help prevent praedial larceny.

And while the JCF advises farmers to know and document the numbers for their local police stations to report farm theft, Gordon said that from his standpoint, farmers have stopped reporting incidents and that may suggest that it is not a large scale issue.

"The farmers don't report to the police anymore. They have literally stopped reporting so there can't be a record of the devastation. It doesn't make sense we are reporting because these guys steal, then they go into the market, and sell wholesale and go home. So you're not going to go in and catch them with it," he told the Sunday Observer.

"They have their orders before they leave here. So if you don't catch them in transit, you don't hold them. Thieving seems to be an acceptable practice as if it is nothing; that is how we treat it."

Gordon said there was a shortage of sweet potato in St Mary because of the drought. He said a lot of farmers who buy and process sweet potato haven't been able to get any since December last year.

"One young man did have some that he brought to fruition and he normally supplied us. He gave us the first supply out of it for the open market and then the next week when he went back to his field, they [thieves] rooted up everything. That is how devastating they are. They just kill the field."

BY ROMARDO LYONS Staff reporter

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