Truth about our housing and food security

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Stand up for what is right regardless of who’s committing the wrong. — Suzy Kassem

Our nation seems to have a penchant for politicising serious national issues that affect the welfare of the people. Often the politicising is clothed in hypocrisy, dishonesty and mischief. Abraham Maslow, in his well-known hierarchy of needs, states the basic primary physiological needs as food, shelter and clothing. This makes the provision of housing central to development. Agriculture, for food security, is also central, and clothing necessary. Good governments will always be mindful of this at the base of planning.

When we look historically we have to wonder how important, in a balanced way, were these needs to our governments since Independence. However, as we evaluate the issue, the fact seems to be that we have not kept abreast with the housing needs of our people. Therefore, we are told we need to build at least 15,000 homes per year for the next five years to catch up. Somebody fell down on this aspect of governance.

We also have not sought to develop agriculture to its highest potential, neither for the sake of our food security nor to ensure that agricultural production contributes to a high percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Obviously these critical aspects of national development were not given the required priority by past governments. Somebody also fell down on this.

It is against this background that I am compelled to enter the hot topic debate of the recently announced housing development on the Bernard Lodge lands. It has caused a squabble between our two major political parties.

On Wednesday, October 30, this newspaper carried a report which read:

“People’s National Party (PNP) shadow minister of agriculture Victor Wright has declared that the nation’s Class A soil, which is best suited for farming and lands with irrigation infrastructure, will never be used for housing or any other purpose outside of agriculture when the PNP forms the next Government.”

This verbal shot of future intent is, no doubt, because of the current Government’s proposed intention to build houses on Bernard Lodge lands in St Catherine.

Three days before Wright’s declaration of intent, government minister Daryl Vaz accused the Opposition of being mischievous, disingenuous, and misleading the country with misinformation. His accusation gained national prominence after the Sunday Observer carried his comments under the headline, ‘Vaz: They are mischief-makers’.

Vaz also charged that the PNP, while it formed the Government, had approved three large housing developments in the area at a time when the Water Resources Authority had designated it a “no-build zone”. If this is so, then it gives rise to the question: Why then is the Opposition PNP fighting the current Jamaica Labour Party (JLP)-led Government on its housing development plans?

Points raised on both sides raises the need for a national conversation to arrive at a policy that considers both the need for housing and where to build, while being conscious of our food security needs. It cannot be one or the other, as both are essential.


Balance them!

The prime minister has clearly, and rightly, stated a commitment to make housing a priority and is evidently backing it with action. The agriculture minister has indicated the Government’s commitment to food security. What has to be brought into balance is giving the country the assurance that there is overall planning that will ensure that prime arable agricultural land is not arbitrarily used for building houses.

This Administration must dispel the perception that the current housing development being proposed is not based on convenience or expediency, or greater profits to developers.

‘Build on hillsides and farm in the plains’ has always been my general mantra. So I appreciate the caution of the Opposition PNP on this issue. However, other factors at times mitigate this. The dire housing needs of a city or town sometimes demands the consideration of proximity, which forces land to have to be changed from highest and best use to facilitate best city development and expansion.

Government must ensure it makes decisions based on principles, policies and planning that consider all factors, not the least of which must be food security. I am not convinced that over the years sufficient thought and planning has been given to this matter. Too many areas across the nation are being turned from quality arable lands to housing. Greater attention must be given to this matter.

Equally creative governance needs to put idle lands into productivity. Funds must be made available to the agricultural sector at affordable rates, and accessible to youth, who must be made to see agriculture as an option. Sadly, our banks, with their current thinking, will not take the risk to lend for development in this area at the level needed. Therefore, Government will have to do this. Agricultural funding must be made easy, yet responsibly managed, to achieve the objective of food security and work for our youth.

Cooperatives, well structured, can be powerful tools in this process. Some churches, if organised, can be used as agents in developing the spirit of cooperatives in this generation. Jamaica needs out-of-the-box, bold thinking and application. New-era leadership can make it a reality. It is not beyond us.

It’s full time we maximise the use of all our arable land for agricultural production, especially niche products and those which give us a competitive advantage. We have some prime alluvial soil, particularly in areas where our rivers and streams have got old and deposited rich, prime soil for growing, not building. These should all be carefully cultivated to ensure that our agricultural sector contributes more than a measly seven per cent to our GDP.

The editors of this august newspaper took too narrow a view in commenting on this issue. The editorial of Thursday, October 31 read: “In the case of Bernard Lodge, they have been loud about not converting precious ‘agricultural land into concrete’ on grounds of food security and not displacing small farmers. What they never do is talk about the dilapidated and ruinate state of the Bernard Lodge lands, since the dramatic demise of king sugar.”

Whereas there is truth in the statement in the editorial, as echoed in some quarters, it should not be lost that had food security been a priority of the nation the land would never have been allowed to get to that state. We would have put it into production by the creative utilisation of the many idle hands and poor of our inner cities.


New era leadership

This is why national development needs new era leadership that is driven by love of people, vision for their needs, along with principles and values that inform decision-making. This is a much better approach than political expediency, whether in Government or Opposition.

Speaking of principled leadership. I want to thank Queen’s Counsel Frank Phipps for his contribution to the debate regarding Justice Minister Delroy Chuck’s comments after the homes of former Minister of Education Senator Ruel Reid and Caribbean Maritime University’s Fritz Pinnock suffered early morning raids by the police. Some people, including many who ought to know better, have called for Chuck’s resignation or removal. The learned Frank Phipps had this to say: “The statement by Delroy Chuck, minister of justice, that was critical of the way the police acted in taking former minister of education and others in custody attracted nationwide attention with a call on the prime minister to demote him. This would be laughable but for the fact that so many believe it was misconduct that deserves some form of reprimand, including Chuck himself who withdrew the statement as being inappropriate for the minister of justice.”

In my own article of Monday, October 28, titled ‘The police must work to earn the people’s trust’, I concurred: “…Chuck, in addressing the arrest of Ruel Reid, gave me a moment of pride and joy to hear him mature enough to distinguish between the alleged wrong done by a colleague, to the injustice done to a colleague in the process of apprehending the colleague for the alleged wrong… The justice minister for some reason later recanted…”

My disappointment in the matter concerns the minister’s recanting. It seems to be another nail in the coffin of strong, principled leadership. For we seem to be entering an era of leadership by mob opinion, particularly the social media mob.

Diogenes, that Greek philosopher of long ago, said: “The mob is the mother of tyrants.” Let’s be careful how we allow the mob of public opinion to influence our decisions. Leaders captive to the fear of men’s opinion can never bring transformation. True heroes have conquered this fear.

Copyright © 2019 by Rev Dr. Al Miller.

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