Are we comfortable using prison labour to continue to suppress the market price of locally grown agricultural produce? I cannot help but ask this question after hearing the Ministry of Agriculture address a group of farmers in North Leeward a few weeks ago. First, he told them the government would buy all the products they produce. This initiative was to restart the food giveaway program. Why? At this meeting, he also mentioned wanting to expand the prison farm at Belle Isle.
I could not help but reflect on the words of Nelson Mandela: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Well, let’s examine the merits of the expansion plan of the prison farm. By the minister’s admission, this would increase production to more than the prison needs to feed itself. He went on to say excess food produced will the sold on the local market or, what is becoming a standard mantra for Mr. Caesar, “the extra food can be exported.” When will someone pull this honorable man aside and tell him that his continued dream of exporting agricultural produce cannot be wished into existence? Creating an export option for farm produce in SVG requires a deliberate plan and a significant investment. But, that is not my main issue with the concept of expanding the prison farm at Belle Isle.
This announcement came at the same meeting with the farmers, where he announced that the government would be paying higher than the current market price for products for the new “Love Box” initiative. I may not be bright enough to understand his reasoning, but he did not even attempt to explain his Ministry’s logic for this generous gesture. He also did not tell the farmers or us what this food handout initiative would entail. Without going into market analysis, he did, by default, acknowledge that we underpay the farmers for their produce. So why are we then embarking on expanding a state-run prison farm? As an aside, why are we not serving more local food in our other state-run institutions? How much of the food grown at the prison farm makes it to the many nonprofit organizations feeding the poor and hungry kids in the nation?
Back to the cheap/free labour at the prison, do we have a rehabilitation program at the prison? Are we genuinely training them to become farmers upon re-entering society, or are we just using them as cheap labour? Do we have a framing educational component to the rehabilitation efforts at the prison? How much are they paid per day for the work they provide? Please understand, my comments about how we treat those members of our society we are forced to incarcerate, are rooted in their welfare. I am also concerned that we do not use them in a manner that will adversely impact hard-working farmers.
I also heard that the “Liberty Lodge Boys” are now going to get into the chicken and egg business as well. This decision comes after a local vet said the egg producers face many problems. In her estimation, eggs should be sold at about $11.20 per dozen or $28/flat. In a conversation with the farmers, the price of eggs should be $12 per dozen or $30/flat before adjusting for the current wave of inflation.
I have the same concern: how will Liberty Lodge entering the egg market help? We already have a glut in the egg market; this is a bad idea unless the Liberty Lodge school invests in broilers. As much chicken as we eat in this country, it is a good idea for the government to incentivize a chicken processing plant. For simplicity, the plant contracts farmers to grow the chickens for guaranteed prices. Yes, a rainforest for chicken. Maybe the Minister of Agriculture might have his way, and we could export any excess production.