Chinese farming investment on Abaco

Bahama Pundit | 28 April 2010

BAIC’s Assistant General Manager for agriculture, Arnold Dorsett (in cap) holds the Chinese team’s attention about what elephant grass is. (BIS photo/Gladstone Thurston)

by Larry Smith

MARSH HARBOUR, Abaco—After trumpeting Chinese investment in "a very large agricultural project" on Abaco that would be up and running by September, senior government officials are now backing off the subject.

Chinese experts visited Abaco at least twice recently, with a view to developing vegetable, fruit and livestock production on 5,000 acres of prime land. Published reports say the Chinese are also talking about food processing plants and providing millions of dollars in supplies and equipment to local farmers.

But Agriculture Minister Larry Cartwright and Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation chief Edison Key both said a few days ago there is nothing to discuss. Their reticence probably has a lot to do with the undercurrent of opposition to the Chinese initiative among Abaco's farmers and environmentalists.

"You just want to write about that so people can jump down my throat," Key told me when I asked whether it was he or the Chinese who had initiated the talks.

I spoke to Key at the All-Abaco Agribusiness Expo in Marsh Harbour over the weekend - a colourful event that provided a good feel for the state of farming on the one island where it has enjoyed some success. It was opened by the prime minister, who acknowledged that while food security was a serious matter, government agricultural aid over the years had produced little value for money.

Although Abaco briefly exported sisal, pineapples and citrus in the 19th century, modern commercial farming began in the early 1950s, with the arrival of a retired American industrialist named James Crockett at a time when thousands of Bahamians were still working on Florida farms because of the lack of opportunities at home. Crockett bought more than 2,000 acres of Crown land near Marsh Harbour to start the Heveatex Plantation in 1956. And a young Edison Key became his diesel mechanic.

Ten years later Owens-Illinois exchanged its logging concession for 20,000 acres of land south of Marsh Harbour that it cleared to grow sugar cane. A processing plant was also built, the remains of which can still be seen near Snake Cay, but after two years of losses the company realized Abaco could not grow a cane crop good enough to produce raw sugar profitably.

By 1978, the cane plantation had reverted to the government, and it is this already prepared land that BAIC is now leasing to local farmers at $25 per acre per year. Also on offer is land north of Treasure Cay that was originally farmed by Edison Key and Morton Sawyer in the 1970s.

"I shipped 600,000 bushels of cucumbers a year to the US in the 70s," Key told me on Saturday, "and we also grew peppers and tomatoes. Then we converted to citrus, which was a year-round crop and less labour intensive. We have the potential to feed this country and to export - but you have to have the labour."

In the late 1980s the original Key-Sawyer farm was renamed Bahama Star. It continued to export limes, grapefruits, oranges and lemons to Florida until the early 2000s, when citrus canker disease forced the industry to shut down. In 2005 all the orchards were destroyed by government order.

This left only a handful of viable farming operations on Abaco, most of which had booths at the agribusiness expo. They include Nick Miaoulis' Neem farm, which packages some 20 different organic products made from the oil and leaves of the 7,000 Neem trees he planted on 120 acres south of Marsh Harbour. Native to South Asia, Neem has proven pharmaceutical properties.

The Abaco Sod Farm has leased 400 acres of the old cane plantation and ships some 100 pallets of grass sod a week to Nassau. Abaco Big Bird produces thousands of chickens for the local and Nassau markets. Mel Wells' Pepperpot Farms plants seven acres of vegetables at a time and also produces honey from 30 beehives. Lightbourne Farms grows hydroponic produce on 10 acres near Spring City. And Pauline Sawyer plants about 50 acres of vegetables that are mostly marketed in Nassau. All told, there are about 20 small farmers that sell to the Abaco market.

Those I spoke to at the expo had serious misgivings about the Chinese, fearing that any large-scale project would flood the local market and put them out of business. But obviously, much of their apprehension is fed by a lack of information. And since top government officials have backed off the subject, clarification is hard to come by.

Initial reports said the Chinese were interested in large-scale farming of vegetables, fruit and livestock. They proposed a processing plant, cannery and abattoir, and said they would give local farmers as much as $8 million dollars in equipment, as well as six 40-foot trailers filled with coconut and pineapple slips, seeds and other supplies.

"The extent to which they will be involved at this point we have not determined, but they are interested in helping in all areas," Edison Key was earlier quoted as saying. One question to be answered is why? Are we talking about an aid programme like the US-led Bahamas Agricultural, Research and Training and Development project on Andros in the 1970s? Or will this be a Chinese-operated commercial farm? Or what?

Well, as I said, those in a position to know are not talking. But we do know there has been recent interest in large-scale land acquisitions in developing countries for farm production as a hedge against rising food prices. The countries acquiring such land include China, South Korea and the Arab Gulf states, all of which have major official reserves derived from oil revenues or trade surpluses.

China already operates a number of 1,000 hectare (2471 acres) Friendship Farms in several African countries that are owned by Chinese state enterprises. In fact, it is estimated that a million Chinese farm labourers are working in Africa, but most products from these farms are marketed locally. And since China is a net food exporter, analysts tend to discount the food security argument as a motive for Chinese agricultural investment overseas.

Chinese companies already have big investments in the Bahamas, especially Hutchison Whampoa, the Hong Kong-based conglomerate, in Freeport. China is also financing the Baha Mar project on New Providence and eyeing other projects on Grand Bahama. In fact, it is playing a strong role throughout the region as a member of the Caribbean Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, which it joined two years ago with a contribution of $350 billion.

A high-level delegation of Chinese officials and business leaders visited Nassau last year and signed a series of economic deals, including an investment agreement, a multi-million dollar loan to build a highway to Nassau’s international airport, and additional support for the sports stadium now being built by the same Chinese enterprise that is interested in agricultural development on Abaco.

Analysts say China’s strategy in the Caribbean is driven by a desire to invest its huge US currency reserves in projects to ensure regional support for China in multilateral organizations, and to isolate Taiwan on the world stage. But we are left to speculate on such matters, since information is such a scarce commodity in the Bahamas - particularly when it is controlled by the public sector.

"When Owens-Illinois cleared all that land for the sugar plantation in the 60s, the government didn't consult anyone and no-one had anything to say about it," Key told me indignantly. "It's not easy being in government, you know. We have to find jobs for the thousands of kids coming out of school every year or they will eat us. The environmentalists don't create any jobs."

That reference was a response to concerns raised about pollution from unregulated farming projects. Former agricultural officer John Hedden, writing in the Abaconian newspaper, pointed out that "The northern Bahamas holds the total potable water reserves for the whole of the country; and this reserve is non-renewable - when it is destroyed, it is lost for ever. This also applies to our wetlands, our marls and our creek systems. These are all extensions of this one fresh water system and serve to nurture our fisheries.

"With such a large area going into food production, the environment, the land, the fresh water aquifer, the native ecosystems and our unique biodiversity will be threatened. Systems and controls must be put in place. Are we going to allow an unmonitored agricultural enterprise threatening the largest fresh water lens of the island because it will provide a few menial jobs?" he asked.

And the number of jobs that will be created by a potential Chinese investment is another key unknown (pun intended). According to the BAIC chief, all skilled labourers on previous American- or Bahamian-owned commercial farms have been Bahamians. In fact, Key himself is a prime example of one of these who went on to become a successful export farmer. And he is the first to acknowledge that one of the the government's concerns would be the number of Chinese who would be involved in the project.

According to Ejnar Cornish, who heads BAIC's Abaco office, Bahamians should have an open mind and learn as much from the Chinese as they can if the project becomes a reality. "Mr. Key has been working hard to get the Chinese in here because he wants the Bahamas to be able to feed itself," Cornish said. "He has continued to dialogue with Chinese investors and great progress is being made."

Meanwhile, Hedden's view is that for agriculture to create jobs for Bahamians, rather than Haitians or Chinese, we need to encourage entrepeneurship. "The fear is that the Chinese will take advantage of what we have in the short term and leave us with a massive pollution problem from overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They will put their product on the local market and Bahamian farmers may as well kiss their livelihood goodbye. Market garden and backyard farming is the only answer."

This is similar to the view held by Ian Goodfellow, who runs a successful four-acre market garden farm, restaurant and gourmet shop near the airport in Nassau. He believes that small operations focusing on agricultural tourism are the key to success in the Bahamas. And Keith Campbell, of the agricultural producers association, insists that no foreigners should be allowed to invest in agriculture without significant Bahamian participation.

"All agricultural land that has been previously cleared and tilled should be strictly reserved for use by Bahamians," he wrote recently in the Bahama Journal. "Absolutely no foreign investor should be granted access to this land unless they are part of a joint venture with Bahamians, helping to develop our indigenous food production capacity."

Any Chinese initiative should be modelled on the BARTAD project in Andros, he said, with Bahamian satellite farmers in a cooperative structure tied into a central hub targeting the domestic and export markets.

Despite the incessant talk about agriculture, the Bahamas is hardly an ideal environment. Physical conditions are harsh, rainfall is erratic, irrigation is lacking, crops require heavy inputs of costly fertilizers and pesticides, economies of scale are impossible to achieve, distribution systems are undeveloped, and production relies almost exclusively on immigrant labour.

But there have been some successes in the past, and Edison Key represents one of those successes. So if he is convinced that Chinese - or American - investment in our agricultural sector would be a good thing, he should be prepared to explain and defend it.

Major projects in our small island communities demand full discussion so that any negatives involved can be addressed. And there is certainly no shortage of failed grandiose projects to point to in this regard.

Who's involved?

Who's involved?


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