Many holders of farmers ID in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are not involved in agriculture, even as legitimate farmers struggle to obtain the documentation.
And, an opposition lawmaker, citing a report by the Ministry of Agriculture said that the farmers ID programme is being used by the government as a way to funnel money into the hands of its supporters.
At the same time, the farmers ID scam may also be providing an avenue for crooks to sell farm animals and produce as if they are the legitimate owners.
On Tuesday, opposition senator and spokesperson on agriculture, Israel Bruce commented on the 2024 Budget, which the government wrapped up a week earlier before even most of its ministers or opposition lawmakers could comment on it.
Bruce quoted from a report produced by the Minister of Agriculture after consultations with farmers between December 2022 and February 2023.
The consultations were held in Richland Park, Lauders, Sandy Bay, South Rivers, Daphne, Biabou, Vermont, Layou and Troumaca.
Under the rubric “Farmers’ ID”, the report said, “Issues surrounding farmers ID came up throughout the consultations across the country as an important area which requires urgent attention.”
It said the main issues that came up for discussions included many farmers having difficulty getting ID cards renewed, which was due to the new requirement of deeds.
It was stated that it was virtually impossible for many farmers to obtain deeds because their farms are on state lands.
“It was considered an unfair practice where legitimate farmers aren’t able to get ID cards while at the same time persons who are not engaged in any significant farming or do not farm at all have access to farmers ID,” Bruce said.
Bruce noted that this was coming directly from the report and not from him.
“The farmers themselves are complaining to the ministry officials, that persons who are not farmers, they have farmers ID.”
The reason for this was because the government was providing financial assistance to farmers, Bruce said.
“They abused the farmers ID programme by using it as an avenue to put monies into the hands of their supporters whom they knew were not legitimate farmers,” Bruce said.
“And I want them to challenge me on it,” he further said in his presentation that was broadcast on radio and social media.
“Because they know that the system is rife, rife, full, abundant, pregnant with people who are not farmers, but are in possession of farmers ID and are reaping the benefits, north, south east and west. What a government!”
He noted that the Ministry of Agriculture did not accuse the farmers of being political when they made this observation, an accusation he said was levelled at him when he made similar comments.
“But I was echoing as a servant in the wilderness of the farmers, echoing their calls and concerns, saying to the Minister of Agriculture, the officials, prepare ye the way of the farmers and make their path straight. That’s what I was doing.”
Bruce said that in his contribution to the budget debate a few years ago, he spoke on the condition of farm roads, praedial larceny “and the list of woes that are faced by our farmers”.
He said he made some proposals, adding that his New Democratic Party feels “the pain, morning, noon and night of the farmers and fisherfolks of this country as they try to make ends meet”.
Bruce said farmers have to consistently deal with planning their crop and rearing their animals only to have them stolen.
“And I suggested to the government, one of the things that needs to happen is not to abandon or dismantle the programme that is in place to support the farmers — the rural constables programme,” Bruce said.
“They laughed me to scorn and proceeded to do as they pleased,” Bruce said.
In December 2017, Camillo Gonsalves, then newly appointed minister of finance, said he believed that the government must state clearly when one of its policies does not deliver the expected results.
“For example, we have these rural constables who are supposed to be dealing with praedial larceny. I asked the Commissioner [of Police] to provide me with data as to how many arrests have been effected as a result of the work of the rural constables and I wouldn’t want to embarrass any of the rural constables,” Gonsalves told a closed-door budget consultation with labour unions in December.
“I think we should be able to say praedial larceny is a problem; we tried something; it is not achieving the results that we want it to achieve; we have to try something different,” he said during the meeting, a record of which has been obtained by iWitness News.
Returning to the specific point about rural constables, Gonsalves said: “I’ve spoken to some of them. Some of the rural constables are glorified chefs.
“They are kept in station and asked to do domestic work. And you’re not going to ketch (catch) anybody thiefing (stealing) anybody sheep and goat if you are inside cooking,” the finance minister said, partly in the Vincentian vernacular.
The government then went on to disband the rural constables programme.
Bruce said the report on the consultations said praedial larceny was “reported in all farmers’ consultation as a very serious problem plaguing the agricultural sector”.
The report said farmers complained that cases of praedial larceny reported to the police were not dealt with in a timely manner, while others are not followed up or investigated or nothing comes out of the reported cases.
The report also mentioned that thieves not only steal produce, but also steal planting materials of sweet potatoes, yams, etc.
“Remember, I told you what I recommended. I am telling you now the actual players in the industry spoke to the government, the Minister of Agriculture and the prime minister of this country.”
He quoted the report as saying, “The general view among farmers is that rural constables should be reinstated to help curb the spread of praedial larceny.”
Bruce said: “It’s not my publication. It’s right there, right there for all to see. Produced by the Ministry of Agriculture; not produced by me.
“So, the farmers themselves have said to this government, you’re not doing enough to help us. In fact, your decision to dismantle, to disband the rural constables programme is hurting us more than it is helping us. And we’re asking you to reinstate it.”
The opposition senator, however, pointed out that the government made no allocation in this year’s budget “to address the issue of the reinstatement of the rural constables programme and to strengthen it, to buttress it so as to meet the expectations, recommendations, cries, pains and plea of the farmers and fisherfolks of this country.
“What ah government!” Bruce said.
Minister of Agriculture, Sabato Caesar was among the two ministers that debated the budget before the debate was brought to an abrupt and premature end.
He made a passing reference to praedial larceny, noting that it was raised by Opposition Leader Godwin Friday when he led off the budget debate.
“And in 2023, we had here in the country, a team from the FAO to address the microchipping of animals and I wish to announce that there is a grant of some US$200,000 to assist 500 livestock farmers in the microchipping of animals,” Caesar said.
“And that will be rolled out in 2024 and for persons who are following this, the first phase was conducted in Barbados and it was very successful,” the agriculture minister said but offered no further details.
Meanwhile, debating the budget, Friday noted that the finance minister said nothing about praedial larceny in his Budget Address.
“This is a very, very important area of criminal activity that is not given sufficient attention,” Friday said.
“And the problem is that it’s very damaging to those individual farmers because after a while they throw up their hands and say why they’re going do it and somebody else reaping or they only plant where you can see their stuff and keep an eye on them.”
The opposition leader said this is damaging to the farm economy “because it saps initiative, and it basically disrupts the production”.
He noted that Gonsalves said in his budget address that it is a great time for farmers in the country.
“I don’t know where he just suddenly discovered that. But the crimes against farmers is something that needs to be given attention. And I speak about it all the time because they don’t seem to have a voice, even from the Minister of Agriculture, or in the police on that issue,” Friday said, adding that he speak to many farmers during his walkabouts.
“So, I made a promise that I would raise it all the time and certainly in government, I said, there’ll be a zero tolerance policy with respect to praedial larceny,” the opposition leader told Parliament, adding that those who encourage the practice are worse than the thieves themselves.
“If a man is not a farmer, how he go come selling you watermelons? You know, if you never raise a goat, how he come selling you a goat? You must know that. And why the price so cheap? They’re aiding and abetting in that crime, and we could do something about it and we should do something about it,” Friday said.
In a press conference on Jan. 3, acting Commissioner of Police Enville Williams said that police often bring charges of theft rather than praedial larceny in connection with the theft of farm produce and animals because theft charges are easier to prove in court.