Monday 24 February, 2020

Phillips issues warning to Gov't as Bernard Lodge land battle heats up

With dozens of small farmers being blocked from accessing their farms along the Dyke Road in Portmore St Catherine, the parliamentary Opposition has served warning that it will be taking up their plight in the interest of justice.

That warning was served by Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips as he made his contribution to the 2019-2020 Budget Debate in the House of Representatives.

The farms are part of Greater Bernard Lodge lands, some 4,677 acres of which have been reserved for the development of a new township, a proposal that has been mired in controversy and, according to the opposition, cloaked in secrecy.

Loop News first reported in February that some 45 farmers who have occupied lands along the Dyke Road for over a decade had access to their farms blocked without prior notice. They have threatened to take the matter to court and have demanded compensation.

Now the parliamentary opposition has weighed in on the unfolding controversy.

“Let me serve notice that we have received a request from the farmers to take up their cause in support of justice and fair play…” Phillips told the House.

 “What the Bernard Lodge saga seems to confirm is that the policy in place now is for prosperity for a few connected people and leaving the others out of it,” he added.

“We’re making a formal demand that the government removes the roadblocks that have been put in place to deny the farmers access to their crops," said Phillips responding to claims that truckloads of marl were used to block the entrances to the farms.

“My God man, they have crops on the land, allow them to take them off so they can reap the crops for the benefit of their families,” Phillips pleaded. He has urged the government to reverse the decision to transfer control of the property to a few without open transparency.

He said the government must invite the fullest participation of the farmers in preparation of the new development plan.

Over time, some 17,000 houses will be constructed among a mix of light industrial and agricultural holdings and social amenities in what is being touted as the most technologically advanced township that Jamaica will see.

But controversy has plagued the proposed development, even before it officially gets off the ground.

The farmlands in question fall inside the area that is categorised as Block C in the development area and have reportedly been purchased by a holding company representing Megamart’s principal, Gazan Azan.

This prompted the farmers to express that they were being “sold out for the big man” and that view was echoed by Phillips on Thursday who quipped that they were being displaced for the “chosen few”.

He highlighted the plight of a 25-year-old farmer with 140 acres of calaloo and onion under cultivation, and who he said recently signed a contract for the provision of cassava to Red Stripe.

Dr Phillips said the young farmer has lamented that he is about to lose his livelihood as he has been given notice to vacate the land he had just prepared to plant the cassava.  

“The issues at Bernard Lodge raise profound questions of policy and procedure,” said Phillips.

Apart from there being no dialogue with the farmers, Phillips said that there was no advertising of the properties as required by law. And he questioned how the new owners were selected.

In the meantime, the Opposition Leader said he also wanted to know the role being played by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) which has sanctioned the master plan that will guide the development.

“Has there been a change in NEPA's position and on what basis?” he questioned. NEPA had previously said no development of the scale being proposed should take place on what is some of the most ecologically sensitive and most fertile lands on the St Catherine plains.

Phillips argued that NEPA had previously objected to any such development on the grounds that the development would prove to be an environmental hazard, including potential permanent damage to the underground aquifer.

He warned that “what is happening there appears to be a travesty.”

“You cannot create an economy that is more inclusive by marginalising innovative people from the mainstream of economic life. The farmers are the very people that ought to be encouraged if you want to reach your growth target.”

Phillips is also urging the Government to make public, the names of the persons to whom the prime lands are being sold and the terms of such sales.

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