Agriculture can enhance Caribbean cooperation Editorial
Stabroek News
May 18, 2002

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The concept of Caribbean integration, though noble and perhaps even achievable, is unarguably futuristic. We genuinely want to see marriages in the region, but perhaps we should be less romantic and more realistic. It might serve us better in the long run, if we were to aim at identifying areas of mutual benefit, developing the process pertaining thereto and then solidifying our gains, while at the same time keeping the ultimate objective of regional integration indelibly imprinted in our minds and being wary of galloping revolutions which are born of flowery rhetoric and esoteric perceptions. Nevertheless, there is quite a convincing argument that agriculture in the region represents a long overlooked, unifying force, one which has the potential of playing a pivotal role in forging a meaningful unity between and among states or axes.

We must understand agriculture to be primarily enhancing all pertinent aspects of production, processing and marketing of crops and livestock and their by-products. Also, we may wish to incorporate some relevant considerations of Forestry and Fisheries under this rubric - all within the concepts of sustainability and environmental friendliness.

This envisaged cooperation in agriculture cannot be seen in vacuo, isolated from the several changes that are taking place in the domestic, regional and international trade and economic environments which impact on the performance of our individual countries. I will not dwell on these changes which accentuate the predicament in which our states individually and collectively are entangled.

Dr Clive Thomas has eloquently and convincingly, in recent writings in the Sunday Stabroek exposed the proposition that agriculture and, in extenso, some national economies in the Caribbean Basin states could experience great morbidity, even mortality, if measures are not undertaken to ensure immediate and meaningful cooperation among these states. Suffice it to say that the most significant development since the mid l980s is the increasing trend towards global trade liberalisation and the formation of regional trading groups. The main elements of this trend are the removal of non tariff trade barriers (including quantitative/quota restrictions and import licences) a reduction in the nominal levels of tariff, and the gradual removal of preferential treatment for internationally traded agri-commodities.

Traditionally the Caribbean Community has built its export agriculture around preferential arrangements which offer some protection against the vagaries of global market forces. Under those arrangements, prices have remained fairly stable and a ready market is ensured for agricultural products. This will not remain like this ad infinitum. There are several agriculture reform programmes and features being developed, some posited long ago during the Uruguay Round and before which reduce levels of subsidies and other support mechanisms to Caribbean Agriculture. While this is going on, we are told that we must be more competitive. However, in order to achieve this, we must improve our levels of technology. This is not so simple. For example, increased production under the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) will trip us up because the cost for those technologies is prohibitive. It is obvious therefore that we must develop our own appropriate technology packages. It makes no sense then each CARICOM member state undertakes such technological development on its own.

It must be clear that we cannot as individual states survive in isolation when all over the world economic and trading blocs are being developed. Already we have instances of collaboration in agriculture which have been successful.

Within the region a Regional Educational Programme for Animal Health Assistants (REPAHA) has been producing veterinary technicians from and for the region during the last two and a half decades. REPAHA was recently merged with the Guyana School of Agriculture. The University of the West Indies has also churned out most of the English-speaking Caribbeanís accomplished agriculturists. However, the problems facing the regionís agriculture necessitate greater cooperation. The following represents some thoughts on improving the cohesiveness of the regionís sovereign nations in the areas of agriculture.

It would seem that the first cogent step would be the establishment of a separate, unaligned and impartial secretariat comprising experienced cadre from the public and private sectors for the sole purpose of promoting agricultural strategies and policies in the region. Alternatively, it must be insisted that the desks dealing with agriculture in CARICOM and in the Association of Caribbean States must be strengthened and enlarged to accommodate the agricultural activities and interests of the English, Dutch, French and Spanish speaking states of the region. The priorities of such an institution should, in the first instance, be:

l) The establishment of a data base which would provide the CARICOM Basin states with accurate and reliable information pertaining to all areas of agriculture and agri-intelligence;

2) The initiation of policy reforms which will become necessary to control increasing fiscal costs of support and protection while identifying accessible incentives.

3) The initiation of studies on pricing policies, price controls, taxes on agri-exports, the need (or not) for marketing agencies/boards.

4) Developing a common unalterable response to international factors like those emerging from the WTO.

5) Agreeing on which states (within the region) have a definitive advantage in growing specific crops.

6) Facilitating the movement of technicians within the region while expediting joint venture proposals of the regionís entrepreneurs.