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Land Reform in Jamaica

Can Jamaica become a major food exporter?

Basil Waine Kong, Ph.D., JD

If Jamaica is to ever to achieve prosperity, security, freedom from dependence on foreign aid and dominance from abroad, we must seize the opportunity to forge a strategy for ourselves and for future generations where the rule of civil law, not the rule of the jungle governs the conduct of our people. To this end, it is our duty to try novel social and economic experiments that allow Jamaicans to reap economic benefit from the sweat of their labour. One such “experiment” may be to bring our agrarian expertise into full swing by promoting the growth of exportable agricultural products to the world.

An abundance of vacant, fallow land is available in Jamaica and can be used to plant exportable crops and to decrease the amount of food that we buy from other countries. This precedence effectively addresses many of our social and economic ills. The planting and reaping of profitable harvests by putting more land into production with available workforce will decrease the number of Jamaican citizens who are idle in our cities. My grandmother was fund of saying: “Idle hands become the work of the Devil.” This is borne out in the high crime rate that plagues us.

It is in the best interest of Jamaica to implement significant land reform for the purpose of increasing food production and reducing poverty. The purpose of a proposed land reform should be to bring about a more equitable distribution of land ownership and access to land. This can be brought about by changes in laws and regulations as a scheme to increase the acreage under cultivation, increase output, meet the growing shortage of food worldwide and at the same time reduce poverty and crime in Jamaica? A land of abundant rainfall, sunshine, fertile soil, expert cultivators, access to huge markets and relatively cheap labor is ripe for a guided agricultural revolution. I was impressed that as a boy we could just stick a limb from a tree into the ground and it would grow into another tree.

The contrast between rich and poor in Jamaica arises mainly from the mal-distribution of land ownership and the lack of access to land by poor Jamaicans. As a result, many Jamaicans do not have access to land that would promote self employment. So, both land and an able bodied labour force are idle, kept apart by outdated laws, customs and bad tax policy. The land certainly should be taxed (site value rating) but not the improvements made to the land and the products reaped from the land for the 1st year of usage. We need to take the incentive out of keeping land out of production and create a graduated taxation or tariff on production after the immediate needs of the farmer have been considered.

Due to extremely low real estate taxes coupled with the increasing value of land, it is currently profitable for entrepreneurs to buy land, take it out of production, pay very little taxes, and eventually resell the land at a significant gain. Baring capturing the land, current landowners have little incentive to either develop their property or make it available for agricultural production or industrial development. On the other hand, potential farmers do not have access to arable land for cultivation. In their desperation and frustration, many of them move to urban areas, survive under deplorable circumstances or turn to crime to subsidize their livelihoods.
The goals of the proposed program are to:

1. Increase the acreage of land that is used for food productions.
2. Increase the number of Jamaicans willing to be farmers.
3. Provide subsidies to cultivators for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and farming equipment.
4. Increase food production (Eat what we grow, grow what we eat) and provide an avenue for market access to farmers to sell their produce.
5. Increase food exports (a government body would guarantee the prices of various food items and prepare and package them for export).
6. Promote the production of canning and packaging plants.
7. Reduce unemployment and promote self employment through farming and provide jobs in the packaging sector.
8. Increase home ownership of the land that is used for farming.
9. Reduce crime by employing young men and women who are now idle in the urban areas.
10.Increase the quality of life for unemployed Jamaican workers through employment and financial empowerment.
11.Increase taxes after subsidizing these farmers for three years.

Further, I recommend that we examine existing laws, regulations and customs relating to land ownership and land tenure. Preventive legislation needs to be removed and new incentive based legislation introduced to:
1. Increase taxes on land that is not being used to incentivize landowners to at least rent the land so it can be productive.
2. Take land where taxes are more than three years in arrears.
3. Relocate unemployed citizens from urban ghettos by reallocating them to land that is laying waste and providing adequate housing to incentivize unemployed citizens to relocate; (Food for the Poor has demonstrated that adequate housing can be built on 10 acres of land for less than J$500,000 per unit. How much does it cost to keep a man in prison?)
4. Adjust Real Estate taxes so that existing homesteads are not adversely affected;
5. Monitor recipients of these land grants to make sure these opportunities are not squandered.
6. Favor married couples.

We have before us the opportunity to forge prosperity for ourselves and for future generations of Jamaicans. A key strategy on our war on poverty is to help individuals to own something and have an investment in a lawful society so they will have an investment in protecting the property and interests of their fellow citizens. The true test of our compassion is in the way that we care for our most vulnerable citizens. We can have a true democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both. The same law for the lion and the lamb is oppression. In order to treat some people equally, we must treat them differently. This is not a gift or a hand-out; it is an investment in our citizens.

To this end, I recommend that our government form a task force to explore the merits of this proposal immediately. The more we are able to put forth realistic ideas, the more of a chance we have for a true reformation and referendum of the current economic policies that is failing our country and our people. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt: “I see on-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished…The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

This land is our land. Let’s put it into production! While I believe that property rights must be carefully safeguarded, I also believe that poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.

Bullet Columnist Basil Waine Kong has written several pieces for this journal and especially likes to expound on his favorite subject: his beloved Jamaica. He is a former Atlien (resident of Atlanta GA), and was the CEO of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) for 22 years before his retirement in 2008 to return to Jamaica. This article is reprinted with his permission from his blogsite; Coming in From the Cold… Bob Marley

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