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Resilient farmers mourn their losses

...as some call for an increased social safety net for farmers
Published: 
Thursday, June 22, 2017

It’s ironic. On Labour Day, June 19, President of the Sheep and Goat Farmers Association Shiraz Khan was pleading with the nation to support local farmers by buying and eating local food crops and meats. He lamented that T&T had become a dumping ground for food which was subsidised and full of chemicals. But less than 24 hours later, Tropical Storm Bret ravaged many vulnerable farming and fishing communities, flooding farms, wrecking many locally grown crops, and raising concerns about the availability and prices of local vegetables in the weeks to come.

In Penal/Debe, Barrackpore and Moruga in the South, floodwaters inundated acres of crops under cultivation, such as tomatoes, pineapples, bananas, celery, chive, and patchoi almost ready for harvesting. Losses also included livestock such as goats, piglets and 20,000 chickens lost by one farmer in South Oropouche, Barrackpore.

When the Caroni River overflowed its banks, it spilled into communities like St Helena, the Centeno catchment area, Las Lomas and Cunupia. The unanticipated volume of water brought by Bret submerged rice fields and acres of sweet potatoes owned by the Akaloo brothers.

Over at Orange Grove and Aranguez, fields of hot and sweet peppers, cabbage and dasheen (both the root and its leaves) did not survive the onslaught.

The Eastern part of the country was not spared. In Brasso Seco, cocoa trees, breadfruit trees and plantain trees all felt the storm’s wrath.

In light of the flood damage across the country, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat has requested the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) to identify borrowers affected by Bret and assist them in their recovery.

Rambarath has also arranged for the receipt of claims for flood damages to be submitted at different locations. Claims would be dealt with on a priority basis. That process is set to begin next Tuesday and the Minister has also promised to use all resources available to assist farmers and fisherfolks in the interim.

But how does one recover and move on from this kind of devastation, economically and psychologically? 

Farmers we spoke to showed a gritty resilience, counting their losses while resolving to survive somehow. They’ve been here before.

Farmer Bhagwan Benny grows pawpaws, pimentos and tomatoes. He suffered losses of some $150,000 to these crops. “You just have to eat half belly and start again,” he said.

His sentiments were echoed by Monkey Town livestock farmer Nathaniel Mungal, who also suffered massive losses. “I have already counted my losses and moved on. I don’t expect any compensation.”

Vishnu Siew, who was spared this time around, explained, “We get used to that (crops being wiped out by floods). When that happens, we just try and try again, because this is the only life we know. If we lose $40,000, we might get back a $3,000 after six or more months. That cannot compensate us. Big farmers like us take the most risk, invest the most amount of money and as a consequence we feel the biggest blows. All the ADB would give is a three or six months grace period.”

Agricultural economist Omardath Maharaj said the farming community is seriously disadvantaged as he repeated his call for a holistic approach, including farmers participation in the governance of this important sector. 

He said: “We take for granted the men

and women who feed us. We don’t respect them. This is a serious setback for small farmers who do not have a pool of resources, who would have incurred debt with increasing interest, even as we speak. “

He said there must be some kind of social safety net to protect farmers; a coping mechanism or some kind of flood insurance to ensure that farmers do not fall below the minimal standing of living when something like this happens.

NAMDEVCO chairman Dennis Ramdeen said he was saddened by what he saw in photographs and videos of the damage. He pledged to lend moral support to farmers while underscoring that they do not have a role in disaster management or recovery. 

“Our farmers are good, hard-working people. They are resilient. They have been here before and they would come through it again.”

While Bret brought pain and suffering to farmers and home owners across the country, it brought joy to some residents of San Francique who capitalised on the opportunity to earn a few extra dollars. As the floodwaters descended in San Francique, the residents threw their fishing nets in the swollen rivers and streams, catching cascadoux for both recreation and sale. 

Fisherfolks in the south of the island, who are still recovering from several oil spills, also expressed gratitude that they did not have to contend with the loss of vessels or equipment. They attributed this to a proactive media which reported extensively on the impending storm. 

“Although the winds came from a different direction this time,” Kishore Boodram of the Claxton Bay Fishing Association said, “we took heed of all the media reporting, all of those bulletins that were issued by the MET office and the Agriculture Minister.”

“Because of this, we were able to understand the seriousness of the situation and secure our boats and equipment, which are very expensive. The fishing association is passing through some rough seas and to have our equipment lost or damaged by a storm would have been devastating. We are very thankful we were spared, and to our fellow fisher folks who were not spared, our thoughts are with them.”

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