Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat answers a question during yesterday’s sitting of the Senate.

A coward taking a cheap amateurish shot at the Prime Minister.

That’s how Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat yesterday wrote off United National Congress Senator Wade Mark’s attempt to link Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s Tobago goat farm to the state’s public/private partnership with Marilissa Farms Limited (MF), a Penal-based farm which specialises in goats and sheep.

Mark raised concerns on the issue during a motion in the Senate.

But Rambharat slammed him, saying “It’s a frivolous ridiculous motion…this isn’t about livestock … It’s a coward taking a cheap shot at the Prime Minister.”

Rambharat detailed how the arrangement arose.

Mark demanded answers on how Marilissa Farms got its partnership. He noted the farm was owned by Lincoln Tackoree, who also owns General Earth Movers. Mark said the UNC had issues with the method and manner in which the partnership was done. He said, “apparently unconfirmed reports” were that “no proper procurement processes” were done. He noted that five firms arose out of 13 expressions of interest – Marilissa Farms, Khan’s Organic Meat Products, UWI, CDC Group of Companies and Agri Fusion Ltd.

“How come a known PNM farmer won the bid?” he said.

Mark noted Marilissa Farms was the largest goat/sheep farm in T&T. He pointed out that the Prime Minister toured the farm among others in 2019.

“My information leads me to the conclusion on the basis of fact that the Prime Minister is also involved in the goat/sheep business in Tobago and has the largest one on over 100 acres of land,” Mark said.

He said when he saw the Marilissa Farms transaction and Rowley visiting MF, “The time will come very quickly when we’ll call for a forensic inquiry into this transaction because I’ve been informed the Tobago farm now has close to 4,000 heads of sheep and goats.” He said there was “a situation” of the “relationship” between Marilissa Farm’s owner and the Government’s leader’s Tobago farm.

“We have a problem with politicians using people’s resources to promote their own private interest,” he claimed

Mark asked what relationship, if any, exists between Tackoree and Rowley, since Tackoree owns the largest sheep farm in Trinidad and Rowley owns the largest in Tobago. He said his “research led me to conclude” Rowley is very commercially active (on the Tobago farm) and meat is now being sold from there to the local T&T market. Mark said Rowley was an active dues-paying T&T Sheep and Goat Society member. He claimed Government members were entering commercial businesses “behind the scenes” and the Opposition would reveal those who became “super-rich” during the term.

“I don’t want to tell you what’s going on in Tobago – some high-ranking government officials have become land developers, builders of property competing with HDC, palaces on Tobago’s hill costing millions.”

Evaluation team made recommendations

Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat says there’s no lease agreement governing the Marillisa Farms arrangement – only a memorandum of understanding (MOU) since the site has to be resurveyed, the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) on the Aripo Land has to be excised and squatters have to be removed.

Rambharat said if Mark wanted information, he (Mark) had sat on Parliament’s Land and Physical Infrastructure committee and could have summoned the ministry or himself to query it.

Detailing how the MOU arose, Rambharat said in November 2015 he decided the ministry needed to do an assessment of the livestock sector. In 2016, Professor Marlon Knights, was engaged to do this and produced a report in 2017.

Rambharat said he reviewed it in March 2018 and gave it to Cabinet, which approved report recommendations. He said Knights surveyed farms including Marillisa Farms, analysing operations. Recommendations included realigning livestock activities and strategic public/private partnership, including for beef and small ruminants on underutilised ministry farms and the Aripo station.

Rambharat said Cabinet approved the report. He said the Aripo farm had been rundown and the People’s Partnership government had built the IDC on the farm without survey or lease.

He said in May 2018 he told NUGFW head James Lambert what was being planned for Aripo and workers there would be redeployed. He asked if the NUGFW would put in for the land but he said Lambert declined and didn’t object to what Government proposed. On that basis, invitations were issued publicly in August-October 2018 regarding the land and were in the media. He said 13 invitations were received and the five firms named were involved.

Rambharat said an evaluation team – headed by Ministry of Finance permanent secretary Vishnu Dhanpaul – reported to Cabinet in December 2018 making recommendations. Apart from Marillisa Farms, second-ranked was Khan’s Organic Meat Products. Rambharat said much of the land Marillisa Farms’ using is forest reserve which can’t be touched. The MOU doesn’t include quarrying.

Rambharath said he’s sometimes happy Rowley is a farmer and sometimes he’s not after demands the PM makes on him as a farming stakeholder.

“I’m proud to see the Prime Minister demonstrating political support and at a personal level to step up in his own farm. He’s in livestock farming a long time, when he handles a bundle of grass, (you see) he’s born to do that and he’s been doing it all his life.”