Food for Thought- Food Sovereignity in Times of Crisis

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced that all restaurants and food vendors will be ordered to cease the sale of food until the COVID-19 virus is under control in T&T. Rowley’s announcement seemed to have inspired a civil war as many have been led to believe that this decision was the result of pressure from disgruntled doubles vendors. However while the country is locked in a senseless argument about whether KFC is “essential” or not, a larger, more pressing issue that has haunted our country for our entire history looms larger than ever. That is, the question of food sovereignity.

As a small island nation with a dormant manufacturing sector, almost every item that is consumed- from clothes, to electronics and especially food- is imported from abroad. But as the COVID infection continues to rip throughout the world without abating, entire industries are being forced to shut down due to concerns about the safety of workers and the wider population. If this virus isn’t brought under control, there is the very real possibility of our nation having to forgo imported goods for as long as the world needs for this virus to relent.

This is a frightening possibility, especially given the fact that our agriculture industry isn’t even a major industry anymore. What would the future hold for the 1.3 million people who live here with our source of sustainance gone? “Too late, too late!” shall be the cry as we would finally understand how important it would have been for our nation to feed itself.

What can the government do (perhaps more poignantly- what would an MSJ government do) in order to revive agriculture in a way that can save us from impending disaster?

It begins with incentivising agriculture. At this point, this is where defenders of past and present agri-policy would interject and list the various incentives that exist for farmers locally. However, none of these incentives address a fundamental problem affecting farmers- the purchasing of agricultural produce.

By importing cheap food that has been mass produced on industrial farms in other countries, we have flooded our own nation with cheap produce which has made it difficult for local farmers to compete. The higher cost of local goods have discouraged both retailers and consumers from buying local. As a result, farmers continue to struggle despite the numerous incentives that are available. However these incentives mean nothing if farmers can’t even get their produce sold.

Therefore it is important that the purchase of local goods are guaranteed by law. Under the MSJ, all supermarkets and other retailers must first purchase products from local farmers before turning to outside sources to fill their shelves. In doing so not only would we provide a stable and steady source of income for local farmers but we would also cut down on the loss of foreign exchange- the shortage of which has triggered yet another crisis in T&T. In addition to mandating the purchase of local food products, the cost of these items will be offset through government subsidies. Why has this not been done before? This oversight can be easily attributed to apathy and nonchalance, but we see something more sinister. The retailers and traders locally have amassed great fortunes through the buying and re-selling of imported goods. From supermarkets to fast food restaurants, the business elite have been able to influence government policy for their benefit and theirs alone. Funds generated from this un-innovative business model have been used to fund political parties and keep politicians in their pockets- hence the lack of interest by both major parties to develop agriculture.

There are other reasons to avoid foreign food products. Last year, the world was horrified as we witnessed the destruction of the Amazon rainforest at the hands of the Brazilian government. The Amazon is being destroyed because the president of Brazil has practically sold large swaths of the forest to agribusinessmen, who are turning the Lungs of the Earth into mega-farms. Many meat, vegetable and beverage products are imported from Brazil into T&T every year. By turning to Brazil for food we are indirectly contributing to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon and the genocide of indigenous people living there. It should also be mentioned here that this will no doubt contribute to climate change, something that can seriously affect our lives as Caribbean people.

Another hindrance to local agriculture has been the habit of both government and opposition parties alike to use fertile farmland for conscruction sites. This is because housing continues to be used as a political tool and not the human right that it is. A separate article about the state of housing will be written in due time; but to address the the topic of agriculture, rest assured that not a single inch of farmland would ever be used for construction projects under an MSJ government. Arable land is a limited resource, especially on an island as small as ours. Every effort must be taken to ensure that such land is protected and utilised in the manner that it ought to be used in.

The establishment of community-based cooperatives will also be encouraged. Beginning at a local government level, each Borough Corporation will establish a number of community farms in order to meet the demands of the population. It should be highlighted that some local government districts (especially those in the built-up, urbanised areas) may not have access to land. This is where indoor and vertical farming can be introduced to ensure that every district can feed its people despite the lack of available land space.

We hope with all our hearts that this COVID-19 crisis passes by without any major fallout for T&T. However even when that happens, we are still far from being out of the woods. For there will be many long battles to fight in the very near future. Because with climate change comes the possibility of droughts, hurricanes and flash floods- things that will no doubt put a strain on our national resources and especially our food supply. One of the ways China was able to contain the COVID-19 virus was due in part to their stockpiling of food supplies for the population. During the course of its long history, the Chinese have had to endure many calamities- natural disasters, disease, war, etc. So it is no wonder that they have figured out that the best way to ensure survival for everyone is to begin by simply making it possible for each person to have a plate of food. We ought to take a page out of China’s book in this regard and turn to our farmers for our survival as a nation.

Remembering 1970

The following piece was transcribed from a speech delivered by YSJ chairman, Angelo Hart. The speech was made at a rally after a march that was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Black Power Uprising of 1970.

The rally was a joint effort between the Youths for Social Justice and the Emancipation Support Committee. It was held on Ash Wednesday of this year and featured other speakers such as Kafra Kambon and Clive Nunez as well as poems by Pearl Entou Springer and Mtima Solwazi of ROOTS Foundation, with a reading of Kamau Brathwate by Muhammad Muwakil.

“In order for the deaf to hear, there has to be an explosion.” These were the words of Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh, a man who spent his life resisting colonial oppression. 

On February 26th 1970, an explosion took place right here in Port of Spain, at the very site we began our march. This explosion was arguably a minor one. It was not the result of weapons of conventional warfare, neither was it a physical explosion of any kind. 

This explosion, perhaps in the greater scheme of things, was a spark. A spark that was the result of colonial machinery falling apart in a modern world, and a spark that ignited greater explosions in the period that followed. But we will discuss those explosions at another time.

This spark in particular is important because for the first time perhaps since Independence,  it inspired the people of Trinidad and Tobago to question and challenge the state of inequality that had existed in T&T. The glitz and the glamour of 1962 had faded. The reality of class inequality and the presence of laws and customs that resembled Apartheid-era South Africa had set in. 

What good was being an Independent country if foreign multinational companies owned more and more of our GDP? What does a flag and an anthem mean when people of African and Indian descent couldn’t work in the banks, had limited access to education and couldn’t even go to some of our own beaches, in our own country? Furthermore, independence from a colonial power meant nothing and still means nothing if our people are still treated with contempt and scorn in these so-called “developed” countries. 

The protest of February 26th 1970 was born out of frustration. The rate of unemployment was the highest it had ever been in our history. Foreign corporations owned as much as 22% of our national wealth, while people who look like you and me were forbidden from working in our banks. Worse yet, access to areas in our Independent country were off limits. 

I would not cover each detail of that 1970 protest, because this is not why I am here to address you. This is more than just preserving history for the sake of it. 

We are here because the project that was started in 1970 is not only incomplete, it is near-forgotten. The battles that were fought and the people who died in the aftermath have been wiped from the pages of our textbooks by those who control our education. Indeed, if we were to take a look at the state of our education system, you would realise that we have not instilled in our young people a desire and an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to our communities. 

Instead we have forced a culture of vanity, materialism and excessive consumption on our children. Education is no longer a tool to liberate the oppressed, but now a tool to create obedient workers. 

This is why we have “career politicians”. Even our public offices are seen as a means to elevate one’s status and financial gain. 

I wonder what our country would look like if schoolchildren were taught about how the streets of Port of Spain were flooded with thousands of people for the funeral of Bazil Davis? I wonder what it would look like if they knew who Bazil Davis even was in the first place, and how he came to lose his life right here in this square? 

And what of the names of Beverly Jones and Guy Harewood? How they challenged the government of Eric Williams and how they were murdered at the hands of a commissioner who went on to become the father of the drug trade in this country? 

But as the old saying goes, those who do not know their history are bound to repeat it. Our unemployment rate is increasing. It has been reported that in the last 5 years over 20,000 people have lost their jobs. Meanwhile foreign companies have proliferated throughout our islands even as our foreign exchange crisis continues. Caribbean people are still used as cheap labour both at home and abroad. How many of us have relatives that were forced under the circumstances to give up their lives and their families in search of opportunities elsewhere? How many of our university graduates have had to leave our own country out of frustration with not being able to advance their lives in any meaningful way while contributing to the development and growth of our country and our region? 

Comrades, this is not the result of chance or incompetence. For the ones who control our education are the same ones who control labour and employment in this country. They used to ask for 3 CXC subjects to work at KFC. But with a KFC on every corner, they ran out of people with three subjects and now they asking for 5, and a bachelor’s degree may as well be just as worthless. 

If history was taught in a fundamental way, do you think the so-called “fully dunce” and “fully ignorant” youths of marginalised communities would be turning their guns on each other in frustration at the circumstances that they are living in? 

How far would our society come if African and Indian students learned about the great March to Caroni and what it meant for the people of that era who were willing to put their differences aside to overcome racial hatred and racial division? 

In closing, I wish to commend the warriors of the old days for the freedoms that young people like myself are able to enjoy today. I wish to let them know that the struggles they faced in 1970 will never be forgotten. We the Youths of Social Justice are determined to finish the project that was started by the warriors of old. Thank you for listening to us today, and thank you for attending our commemoration. 

Power to the people!