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Govt fiddling with cane money

By LEISELLE MARAJ Thursday, November 5 2009

For years, Caroni cane farmers have been at loggerheads with government over accessing EU funding to cushion their exit from the industry.

Time and again, groups representing farmers picketed the offices of the European Commission, the Office of the Prime Minister at White Hall and several other state offices to express their concerns over the funding.

Farmers feared that government was stalling in taking up the offer by the EU of some Euro $41 million to be used in minimising the environmental, social and economic impacts of government’s decision to withdraw from the sugar industry.

And while plans are indeed moving ahead by government to use EU funding for the restructuring programme developed for the sugar industry, the Cane Producers Association fear government is attempting to exclude its members in benefiting from this support.

Planning Minister Emily Dick-Forde last week at a media briefing held by the European Development Fund and the European Commission said Government has been keeping up their end of the agreement.

EU funding will be delivered in four fixed tranches, once government is able to fulfill three conditions of the financing agreement. Four variable tranches are also available, once the country is able to fulfill additional criteria.

Trinidad has already received Euro 2.2 million in the first fixed tranche from the European Commission and may receive the variable tranche for 2009 of Euro 3.6 million once assessment is done to ensure economic diversification and mitigation of the environmental and socio-economic impact is taking place.

Dick-Forde used the opportunity to explain cane farmers had been included in plans for restructuring the industry. As part of the process, she said, 3,420 private sugarcane farmers who were cultivating sugarcane during 2006-2007 were to be provided with transitional finance .

Alternative opportunities to private cane farmers were also to be provided through the regularising of farmers who had tenancies with Caroni or who were squatting on state lands. Dick-Forde said 6,000 private farmers had tenancies on 12,000 acres of Caroni lands.

Seukaran Tambie, General Secretary of the Cane Producers, in an interview with Business Newsday, said that government is painting a false picture of the state of affairs.

He said that there are over 9000 cane farmers and their employees still waiting on assistance. Ninety percent of the cane farmers, he said, already own the lands they were using to cultivate cane, despite claims that 6,000 farmers are on state lands.

“This shows there is a plan to divert EU funding from us, the cane producers who are supposed to be the major beneficiaries to government for their restructuring plans,” he said.

According to the minister, government executed an agreement on the terms and conditions of an exit strategy with the Trinidad Islandwide Canefarmers’ Association, The Canefarmers’ Association of Trinidad and Tobago, the Direct Delivery Canefarmers’ Co- operative Society Limited and the Sugarcane Farmers’ Co-operative Society in September 2007.

“The Cane Producers Association of Trinidad and Tobago, which represents a small group of farmers, did not execute the agreement,” she said. Tambie said on the contrary, the four named groups represented less than 100 of these private farmers while Cane Producers represented the rest.

Dick-Forde said under this arrangement, 3,420 cane farmers were paid sums totaling $82 million after becoming eligible to receive transitional support from the government as they were cultivating sugar cane in either 2006 or 2007. Tambie said this is a mere pittance for private cane farmers since workers at the Caroni Limited received $741 million total in cash and land and housing allowances when the company was closed in 2003.

Government, he said, is moving funding away from farmers who are supposed to be beneficiaries.

Head of the European Commission in Trinidad and Tobago, Stelios Christopoulous, explained that funding will be based on the government’s ability to develop and implement programmes to improve the entire agriculture sector.

In countries which are committed to implementing pro-development sectoral policies funded by a dedicated budget and governed by a sound public finance management system, the European Commission considers that they are eligible for Sector Budget Support, he said .

This programme was put in place in all 18 ex-Sugar Protocol African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries to help them to adjust to the phasing out of cane and sugar production that was imposed by the World Trade Organisation when the decision was made to phase out quota and price related preferences on sugar, he said.

The Commission, Christopoulous said, is ensuring the country is able to fulfill its responsibilities.

Two technical assistance consultancies have been paid for by the Commission which has helped in shedding more light into relevant areas to guide actions and policies of the government.

He said the results of the recently concluded strategic environmental assessment are being used already to inform policy makers.

A second study assesses the socio-economic impact of the divestment and will provide the government with policy options, he explained.

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