Heeraman Christopher loads bags of cucumber on to his pickup.

Like their counterparts across the country, Plum Mitan farmers face a list of issues and challenges in agriculture. At the top of that list is land tenure; the catch-22 is that the bureaucracy of not having this vital requirement is an impediment to accessing loans and the tax-free incentives given to the agricultural sector. Other obstacles are flooding, the three pumps servicing the area at the junction of the Cross Line and Main Line Rivers are over 30 years, obsolete and non-functioning. The river courses are covered with aquatic weeds and in dire need of cleaning. They have to contend with poor access roads, lack of water for irrigation during the dry season, praedial larceny and multiple pests and diseases affecting livestock and crops.

Political parties have been sowing seeds by pitching that agriculture is of paramount importance to the diversification of the economy in a bid to reap the harvest of votes in the August 10 general election.

Back in 2018 Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said T&T did not have enough land for agriculture. That same year the Government turned the sod to start construction of the $90 million Moruga agro-processing plant. On July 14 Rowley officially opened the facility (located on 18.83 acres of land) and said that the Government’s investment in rural communities will generate thousands of jobs, increase food supply and improve food security in the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated worldwide the importance of countries producing food to feed their people. With the hoarding of supplies and the related food shortages, several countries had limited exports of staples such as rice and wheat to protect domestic supplies.

It is also a formidable task for any government to reduce the country’s burgeoning $6 billion (TT) food import bill.

In the 1950s a 1,000-acre Government State Land project, the Plum Mitan Rice Scheme, was developed. This was the foresight of the late first prime minister Dr Eric Williams, and the objective was to benefit the inhabitants of the village. Even today, over 90 per cent of the population depends on this project for their livelihood.

While the rest of the country experiences a shortage of young people interested in farming–of the 300 farmers actively involved in agriculture in the village, there are over 100 young farmers in Plum Mitan under the age of 35.

The scheme set up by Dr Williams was one of many rice projects developed during the 1950s and 1960s along with Fishing Pond, Navet, Rio Claro, Kerrnahan, Oropouche, Barrackpore, Penal, Felicity and Caroni.

At one point, Plum Mitan boasted of being one of the largest rice producers in the country. The village was also known as the food basket of East-Central, producing watermelon, plantain, cucumbers and a variety of other crops.

Doodnath Ramjawan, 84, said Plum Mitan was self-sufficient in rice and other crops even during the ration-card era of World War II.

He said “When people used up their portion of rice, people used to come and buy rice from my father in the 40s. He sold rice at $3 a pan, that was plenty money back then.

“We also planted dasheen, cocoa, coffee, cucumber, watermelon, pumpkin and pepper. We made our own sugar cane juice and built the machine too.

“My father reared animals, we always had cow milk. My mother, Bhagmanyah and my wife, Molly, made dahi, ghee, coconut oil to sell and common fowl eggs.”

David Grimes, 24, a young farmer, said he drove all the way down from Morvant to buy plantain suckers on the advice of his father who told him of the quality of the farmers’ produce and their knowledge they willingly shared. He was very impressed.

Plum Mitan and agriculture may be more relevant with the COVID-19 crisis, as rice is one of the country’s main consumption staples.

Guardian Media visited the area to hear the farmers’ concerns:

•Roooplal Ramnanan, a farmer from Block 4 said his licence for working on the land was not renewed and his farmer’s badge was expired.

He said he was using his receipt to show that he was a farmer, but he cannot access a loan from the bank or the ADB and he was still waiting on his flood relief assistance for several years.

Ramnanan said his bodi, baigan and cucumber crops either fell to thieves or rodents. He also wanted an excavator to remain in the lagoon to dredge the river.

He said there was a symbiotic relationship with rice farmers when their fields were irrigated with freshwater that also brought cascadura which he sold along with conch to make a living in the past.

•A caiman was spotted in the algae-choked river near 21-year-old Ian Rostant’s farm. While they are protected they pose a danger to farmers’ chickens and dogs.

He said mice and slugs were attacking his crops and his water pump had to be cleaned regularly from the buildup of slush in the river.

Rostant said he did masonry to supplement his garden work. He was now focusing his efforts on rearing pigs, ducks and cascadoo which are now scarce.

•Avin Rostant said farmers had to contend with the terrible condition of roads leading from their farms all the way to the Norris Deonarine Northern Wholesale Market, Macoya, sustaining damage to their vehicles and crops, and then being paid low market prices for their produce.

He said the adjacent river was cleaned recently but it was now filled with algae, and there was also over-fishing of the fresh-water fish using fish-traps.

•Rajish Dookhie said he lost 15 of his cattle and bison to bats draining their blood last year.

He said he was also losing his crops to mice and whiteflies, but no help was forthcoming.

•Ashmead Ali said he lost ten cattle to bats and no one from the Ministry of Agriculture’s anti-rabies unit Rio Claro Demonstration Station came out at night to do field testing. He said in lieu of this, farmers should be trained to use equipment to catch the bats and taken to the anti-rabies unit.

•Naresh Ramkissoon said Blocks 1, 2 and 3 had easy access to water and pumps while for those farmers in Block 4, it was a different story. He said while slugs ate their plants, many farmers soldiered on with expired state lands agricultural licences and cannot renew their farmer’s card or access incentives.

•Heeraman Christopher said the price of chemicals, no standard price for farmers in the wholesale market, water and irrigation were his chief concerns.

He said fluctuating prices, field hands pay, transport, fertilisers and chemicals were expensive, flood relief grants were inadequate compensation or next to nothing.

Christopher said a farmer cannot get a loan from the ADB if he had no collateral or deposit.

He said farmers needing a pass to sell in the Central Market was a disincentive, and that the Macoya market model should be copied where everyone is charged a flat fee to sell.

•Surujnarine “Buck” Hanooman, vice president of Plum Mitan Central Community Based Organisation (CBO) said employment was an issue in Plum Mitan. However, violent crime was non-existent as evidenced by many houses having no burglar proofing, the community looked out for one another. Hanooman said the Nariva Swamp had so many resources and potential for eco-tourism with its diverse wildlife which can play a key role in providing a livelihood to the people in the community and for generations in the future.

Farmers are appealing to the Government to assist them. As the country enters the rainy season with unpredictable weather and the bane of farmers–flooding–they are pleading with the Ministry of Works and Transport to clear the Main Line River flowing to the Nariva River.

Agriculture Minister responds

Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat, responding to the concerns raised by the farmers, said “Land tenure is a national issue, and we have been working to get the backlog resolved. The incentives are available and accessible to farmers who meet the requirements.

“The water issues are addressed as they arise by our Engineering Division.

“It is well known that there is one farmer who has a land issue that is in court and purports to speak on behalf of Plum Mitan.”