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THE ISSUE – Crop theft digging into farmers’ livelihoods

marciadottin, [email protected]

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In 2008 one St Michael farmer gained national attention for destroying the remainder of his cassava crop after thieves again denied him the fruit of his labour.Patrick Bethell, manager of Friendship Plantation, made the news when he reported that thieves had made off with 58 plants over the course of four days.Then he called the media to highlight another 56 plants uprooted.“In one-and-a-half weeks I have lost around $1 800,” he said, recounting the loss of his entire one-acre field of four-month-old cassava plants in the October 8, 2008 DAILY NATION.When the first cassava plants were stolen, Bethell said he would destroy them all if the larceny continued and he carried out his threat – he dug up the rest of the field, which he said was worth more than $30 000.“It hurts me to have to destroy a crop just to make a point but I feel raped and violated and I have decided the time for talk is over.“The gloves have to come off or you can forget about agriculture in Barbados. I think it is misleading to tell the 4-H clubs to grow food just so [it] can be stolen and I have met many people who no longer farm because of thieves,” he said.Bethell said he was forced to cut his staff working hours to four days instead of five and was even contemplating giving up farming altogether.“We are planting cassava freely and willingly as citizens of Barbados and this is what is happening. Well, I am done with that!” he said.While this tale grabbed the attention of both the authorities and laymen, possibly due to its novelty, many farmers are faced with praedial larceny, albeit often on a smaller scale.Several suggestions have been made over the years to counter this criminal offence, including stiffer fines, imprisonment, increased police patrols and night farming.In the October 22, 2009 DAILY NATION, Michael Pile, manager of Brighton Plantation in St George, urged the authorities to forget fines and simply jail people found guilty of crop theft.He said thieves had stolen more than $10 000 worth of carrots and irrigation equipment from the his fields.“The fines are a joke. If you fine them, they just steal somebody else’s vegetables to pay the fine.”Pile suggested a minimum non-discretionary jail term of six months for first-time offenders which would be doubled if they are found guilty of another theft.“Crop thieves are destroying [farmers’] livelihood, property and our interest to continue farming,” he said.He suggested that authorities give praedial larceny greater attention, with some haste to investigating complaints and prosecuting suspected offenders.Pile also recommended establishing a special police task force to deal with what he called the widespread and highly damaging problem of crop theft.   He charged that crop theft was not being given the same priority as theft from supermarkets, department stores and other businesses, with agriculture largely viewed as “a poor relation to” construction, tourism and offshore business.   He said there was “no real punitive measure in place that will deter anybody from stealing” and predicted that the problem “will only get worse”.Earlier that month Minister of Agriculture Haynesley Benn had said help was on the way for farmers reeling from the scourge of praedial larceny.   In October 14, 2008 DAILY NATION he noted that his ministry was seeking to provide upfront funding for security systems for farmers and stiffer penalties for those who steal crops.“There are funds in the ministry for security systems and I hope that the farmers will take full advantage of those rebate programmes and get security systems in place . . . [but] we will probably look again at the possibility of some of these rebates as expenditures upfront.“The Prime Minister himself and the Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance [Senator Darcy Boyce] have suggested to us that rather than let the farmers be burdened, because some of them are cash-strapped already, that once they identify the [security] system and we have gotten the approval and a look at the systems, we would want to encourage them to come and get the funds upfront and get the systems in place,” said Benn.Meanwhile, the Barbados Association of Retailers, Vendors and Entrepreneurs (BARVEN) suggested a remedy to the problem of praedial larceny in the March 16, 2008 Sunday Sun.Public relations officer Richard Scantlebury suggested that the introduction of night farming could be a deterrent.“It stands to reason that if you have workers in your field at night, it’s less chance for thieves to come and take stuff. That is something we need to look at.“I understand it happens in Cuba where they do night farming, and it happens in Canada with workers on the Farm Labour Programme.It can be applied right here in Barbados,” he said.Most recently, the Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF) announced that vendors of agricultural goods will soon have to show proof of purchase for items they offer for saleThe June 27, 2010 SUNDAY SUN reported that this was in light of a series of praedial larcenies across Barbados over the past several weeks.“We will be conducting a future exercise in Bridgetown and elsewhere to check for the certificates of purchase or the receipts,” police public relations officer Inspector David Welch said.Welch noted that the force considered the investigation and prevention of praedial larceny to be just as important as other crimes.He also noted that investigations into complaints, particularly from the Gibbons Boggs, Christ Church area, were fully in progress and a joint meeting will be convened soon with farmers.“We believe that once sellers of agricultural produce and purchasers who intend to sell retail cooperate and use what the act prescribes, this should significantly reduce the thefts of crops and animals,” he said.Independent senator and consultant agronomist Dr Frances Chandler said she welcomed the planned police enforcement.“I think that the enforcement of the certificates of purchase will help the praedial larceny situation to some extent” she said.Chandler said the system was used successfully at one of the island’s leading supermarkets.“I think that the system should be put in place at all major supermarkets and hotels and there should be spot checks by Ministry of Agriculture officials to ensure that it is being used. Spot checks should also be made in the public markets. While this move by the RBPF is laudable, the proof will be in its continued enforcement. Also, it is only one measure and it is therefore pertinent to ask what other steps will be taken.