Presumably, I assume: some issues about information deficit

The value of information is not in what is transmitted, but in what is received. My wife said she sent me an email with a phone number in it. I said I never saw it. Why not give it to me now that you’re standing next to me? I asked. Eureka moment. Transmitted and received well.

I don’t know how I can prove the point I want to make, but let me start the argument. Jamaica may not be very different from many places, but we can’t see enough of all of life’s parts to know how alike we are in some basic ways. I think that Jamaica suffers from an information deficit. We have agencies that send out information, but what we see suggests that, at best this is only partially received.

The country is suffering a drought. How do I know that? I have an idea from the fact that I had not seen rain for weeks, during a time of the year when rainfall is supposed to be more likely. I see the ground around where I live and in areas to which I travel, and it looks dry and hard. Plants look brown, instead of green; many are dying instead of thriving. During afternoons, when the heat rises, the clouds form but no rain comes as one would expect at this time of year. I read press reports and hear news broadcasts, which tell me of the dire national situation of water shortage. I heard that the responsible minister made statements to the nation, telling us that this drought is real. “Fellow Jamaicans, this is a challenge, and it is one that is made worse by higher temperatures and windy conditions, that provide the perfect combination for bush fires, which, given the present water shortage, will be difficult to control and extinguish,” Ministers Pickersgill is reported as saying.

I highlighted the section on fires for a simple reason. I feel that I have been well-informed about this dangerous national situation, and try in my own limited way to heed it. But, for all the efforts to inform, have others absorbed this information, that we think is flying out there freely? My presumption is that most of the country tries to stay well-informed. But, I do not know if this is true.

Many so-called ‘educated’ people are quick to disparage part of society as ‘ignorant’ and ‘ill-informed’. Yet, some of that criticising group is only too glad to say things like “This is why I don’t watch local news.” Now, let me slow down. If the intelligentsia think they can survive in the country by disconnecting from local news reporting, why can we be confident that the ‘ignorant’ will bother? Is it that the ‘ignorant’ cannot think clearly through the weaknesses of local reporting to see the truths that are not reported? Is it that the facts are so obvious that local sources need not be consulted? Simply put, there’s a presumption that local news is not worth wasting time. The intelligentsia, of course, want their heads filled with ‘international’ news–it puts them in a seemingly superior position to be able to pontificate about the perils facing the world in places far and wide, and by groups with names that are tongue-twisting: “Hezbollah…Nagorno-Karabakh…Herzegovina…Boko Haram…Nethanyahu…”.

So, when ministers and the Jamaica Information Service issue statements and bulletins, to whom are they speaking? I assume that the farmers tilling yam hills and tending cows and hoeing weeds from between scallion try to have an ear to what is going on outside their small holdings. But, that’s a view I hold because I want to be informed. I grew up listening to the BBC shipping forecasts, thinking that everyone knew about ‘Dogger…Cromarty…Viking…’, etc. I tend to believe it less when I listen to what goes on as normal business in the agricultural sector. I recall stories earlier this year of peanuts being grown but no one knowing who wanted to buy: supply and demand could not meet. Peanuts rotted. Farmers face destitution. Do we have a peanut marketing board to bring the two sides together? Not exactly, but we have the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, which has a marketing division. Whatever they are supposed to be doing, the peanut farmers are at a loss.

But, if rural people are so ill-informed about their basic bread and butter such as where markets are, why should they know about anything else? Which brings me back to the fires.

Slash and burn has been a part of our rural life for centuries now. It has its rationale, but economic and environmental. It’s not unique to the tropics or to less-developed counties; it’s part of ordinary agriculture. Rural people are accustomed to it, and think they can control it. They don’t necessarily see it as problematic, including during droughts. That alone could explain why, when driving across Jamaica in recent weeks, despite the drought, we’ve seen plumes of smoke, as slash and burn continues. If we want that to change, a JIS infomercial won’t do. It needs a re shaping of economic and social life.

Now, not all bush fires are man-made. We know spontaneous combustion takes place. Maybe, that explains the fires last week in Jacks Hill, which some argue were started as flint ignition. Maybe, that explains some of the burnt banana and bamboo stands seen around southern St. Mary, including the small blaze I saw last night at about 8pm, just after rain had passed the area near the banana chips factory. But, we can’t inform nature.

We’re trying to persuade people to do things or stop doing things, but we’ve no idea how receptive are the ears to the official voices.

That issue goes far beyond our current problem with dry weather and tinderbox bush land.20140804-092536-33936456.jpg

Those of us who live in the a Internet age may find it hard to fathom that information can still move at snail’s pace. But, let’s not presume or assume too much. It may seem extreme, but I’ve met people who do not know who is Usain Bolt, or that Bob Marley is dead. To borrow from The Harder They Come: “How him cyan dead an’ nuh tell mi?”

Meat me at the corner

Roger Clarke, Minister of Agriculture, is one of my favourite Jamaican politicians. He is a man seemingly made for the role he has to play. He’s jocular and rotund, and seems to me to be the very image of ‘Jolly Roger’. He often gives the impression of being a little bumbling, but he knows his onions. I get the impression, however, that he’s struggling to carry the country to market with him. Maybe, that’s because he was twerking while the PM was working. I’m not sure.

Fool the farmer? Never!
Fool the farmer? Never!

Jamaica has a whopping food import bill–let’s call it US$1billion. We have been urged to eat into that, and for a decade we have had the Eat Jamaica campaign, with its motto ‘grow what we eat and eat what we grow’. Much as I love to eat Jamaican food, I keep getting shocked by the fact that what I think is Jamaican is foreign.

Minister Clarke urged us to belly up and eat more pork. It was in plentiful supply, I heard him say on the radio about 10 days ago. Today, I see Roger’s telling me another indigestible fact: “We are self-sufficient in pork and in poultry, but we import a lot of mutton. We eat a lot of curry goat, but some 80 per cent of the goat meat we eat is imported.” You’re kidding!

Thankfully, it’s meatless Monday for me, so I wont add to my newly discovered misery and have to stomach a plate of foreign goat. More sheep and goats are to be reared, and a project (in year two) to raise the levels of local goat meat is at 50 percent of the required level; the rest should be complete by month-end.

I see goats running in the roads every day and have the impression that we are in danger of seeing them run the country and ramming through their policy choices, instead of the current crop of politicians. Images of Animal Farm suddenly come flooding back into my mind. All the talk of ‘pork barrel’ politics.animal-farm1 The idea of politicians with their noses in the trough all seem to take on a hideous reality.

Jamaica is an agricultural country, yet we seem to have betrayed that characteristic and fallen foul of the dreaded cheaper imported foods. Roger is trying to get us back to the land and to take back our land.

Kingston was all-a-flutter a few weeks ago with a stunning new trend. Actually, not Kingston, but New Kingston–haven of the office and the pristine coffee shop. Maggi brought a farmers market there. The bush was being brought to the stush–a little plug for Stush in the Bush :-). Everything ‘sell off’ by 11am. Wonderful! I hope the vendors in Coronation Market were not too miffed. Maybe, the solution is to bus groups of office workers from their suites to the stalls there a few days a week. That would put a crimp in the lives of the so-called extortionists in downtown Kingston, who prey on people wanting to park cars nearby when they seek their home-grown fare.

I know a few growers in Jamaica, some are old-thymers, some are new. Some are in the furnace of St. Elizabeth, some are in the cool hills of St. Andrew and Portland. They all work like mad people. They never seem unable to meet needs. Some even bring produce to the home, from the hills. I’ve taken to going to market, like my father used to. I’m not good at picking out yam and sweet potatoes, or knowing the best soursop, but I get by. I noticed some months ago that all the garlic was from China. I had a long talk with the vendor about why we cannot produce garlic locally. We hear all the time about the health benefits of this bulb, but the light has gone out in terms of our share of the market.

I’ve tried a little–very little–market gardening in my yard; the house is rented, but I’m reconfiguring little by little. Friends of mine in other islands regale me with pictures of how they have raised tomatoes, sweet peppers, aubergines, and more over the past year. Yeah!

The problem of growing enough to feed ourselves in not new in Jamaica, and it’s not the fault of any one person. Things were not helped by our push into tourism, where the links between the stomach of the foreigner and the breadbasket of Jamaica were too thin. We have a great food processing company, Grace Kennedy, which is now pushing Jamaican products into west Africa. I saw adverts yesterday for frozen Jamaican meals. I hope that they are all or mainly sourced with local inputs.

I read last week some online anger at St. Mary’s, who make banana and plantain chips. The packages show ‘produce of Dominican Republic’. Horror! The company tried to explain that local bananas were hit hard by recent hurricanes (again) are not always available, but they have a plant in the DR, which they use to fill their needs–aka our bellies. Now, the local, native, Irie brand, Chippies, needs to push itself more into our faces–and improve that packaging.

What about those people selling Jamaica Producer bananas on the roads? They are local, right?

So, it’s for each of us to do our part. Eat what we grow and help grow what we eat.

We deh yah still! (We’re still here!)

An IMF team is on the island to assess economic progress through December 2013 and look at prospects for coming months. Some of the Jamaican financial officials whom I know commented casually in recent days that “everything is alright”. The official numbers seem set to pass the levels needed to satisfy the Fund. All’s well with the world. Well, yes and no. Jamaica’s economy is not on its knees, but it walks with a gait and with a bent back. It’s not striding confidently ahead and may yet find some rocks over which to stumble. But, apart from the official data, what do our eyes and ears tell us?

I cannot go anywhere in Jamaica without thinking about the state of the country–it’s economy and its social structure. I’m more struck to think when I get out of Kingston. Yesterday, I headed to Mandeville, in the hills of the parish of Manchester. It’s economic base has been based on bauxite industry activities and agriculture. In more recent times, the parish has gained from being an attractive location for returning residents. Coming back to Jamaica, often with foreign currency incomes, these people have been able to deal with harder economic times in Jamaica. They are not super-rich by any measure, but can enjoy a comfortable life. Some have found readjustment to Jamaican life a real challenge. Others have thrived on being able to get back to their national, if not really local, geographical roots. Of those, a good number try their hand at market gardening, planting and rearing enough to provide much of their daily fruit and vegetable needs, maybe with a little poultry rearing thrown in.

The parish is mainly rural and spread out. The decline in bauxite activity has taken its toll on the fortune of what is Jamaica’s third city (it’s a large town, really). A report last year noted that one of Mandeville’s former private schools, Belair High, was becoming government-funded, and begun to open itself to a wider market, in part because the fee-paying base has declined. Changes such as this are not easily seen by the occasional or casual visitor, but they are still real.

What appears more evident is the hustle and bustle of the town centre of Mandeville, or that of towns one passes on the road, such as Porus. At a glance, not much seems different from a year ago, but it seems less than in years before then. Taxis and Coaster minibuses ply their trade as usual, but I heard from some drivers that business is harder to find. People have no other options to get from settlements outside Mandeville to the centre, or from the parish to other places. Of course, the market for public transport is tough: taxis and buses will fill themselves with people and belongings and try to maximise fares from each journey. That, sometimes, means a tough time for the riders. I got an impression from people I know who use taxis a lot and a driver that the operators are fewer. (I’m frustrated that I cannot find figures to prove that.) I know, from press reports that the business has become more dangerous, with reports of attacks on drivers, and a recent report of a driver being allegedly beaten by police.

Crime has risen and that has begun to take its toll on business confidence, especially as several businesses and their owners have been targets for violent attacks. Police commentators talk about the area still being safe. Everything is relative: more crimes are reported than before, but fewer crimes occur than is say the more populous areas of St. Catherine and Kingston/St. Andrew.

I did not get to go outside Mandeville town centre yesterday, so I cannot say how things appeared in the field, so to speak. I did not go to the area near the normally bustling market, either. I still saw a good number of vendors on the road side, selling oatahite apples (in season)

Oatheite apple, a Jamaican favourite
Oatheite apple, a Jamaican favourite

, pineapples, yam (of which, I read there is a glut, and also in abundance at the Melrose Hill yam park, where I wanted to stop to grab some soup). As I pulled into the area, a flock of vendors waving roast yam and sweet potatoes rushed towards my car. “Buy one, nuh, sah!” I waved them off and focused on the lady with a large soup pot. I asked her how business was. “It’s up and down,” I heard. It’s on the busy main road that brings traffic from Kingston and east through to Montego Bay and west and south. During the week, the business will be the passing travellers, who, like me, are hungry and need a filling and easy meal to break their journeys. I reflected on the fact that it’s not an area where many tourists will reach–their loss (but that’s another story).

Soup seller, ladelling corn soup; Melrose Hill, Manchester
Soup seller, ladelling corn soup; Melrose Hill, Manchester

A few vehicles were parked and travellers were standing, enjoying what they had bought. I started drinking my soup, put down my corn for later, and headed back on the road; I wanted to get to Kingston before traffic got too heavy in the city.

Vendors at Melrose Hill, Manchester, yam park
Vendors at Melrose Hill, Manchester, yam park

Life lived abundantly would not be a bad phrase to apply to the parish, most of the time. As I noted, I did not get out of the town centre. I went to a supermarket to buy bottled water. I also went to a large pharmacy, to get school supplies for a geography project. Both were quiet; but a 10 am in the morning, that was not surprising. It was also a day on which a funeral was being held for a well-known son of the soil, and the car park to the church was jam-packed. I saw a lot of people also standing near the church. Not invited, but interested?

I also went to the post office, to try to help draw pension money for my father. However, the post office had no cash! This was a first for me. I don’t know how the government funds the agencies such as post offices, who are charged with paying benefits. I thought about the wasted journeys that had been made that day, with money and time spent for no purpose. For those, who needed to cash to do other things that day, tomorrow would have to be better. I thought of the simpler arrangements that exist in places like the USA or UK, where payment could be made through bank or even post office accounts, and then spending could be done with check or credit/debit cards or online. But, Jamaica is not there. I thought about lost productivity and lost production. Another brick in the inefficiency building.

We went to buy paint supplies. We checked prices at one hardware store, then found that they did not have the colour we needed for the exterior. We went to the next store, a few minutes away. We found all we needed. A reasonable number of customers were there for the mid-afternoon. Outside the store was a large armoured truck with a guard clutching a shotgun rifle (I think, not being an arms expert). Prices were a little higher than in the other store, but we were stuck because of choice. I asked if we got discounts for bulk or for being senior citizens. We were told to ask at the cashier’s desk: we got a 10 percent reduction.

Outside the first store, a man was selling cucumbers, two in a bag, but sold as a pound; they looked really nice and we bought two pounds. I asked why he didn’t sell them by number–they all looked about the same size. “I weigh them and know it’s right,” he replied. (It’s fairer to buyers to sell by weight, but without a scale, at time of sale, the question about true weight will always be there.) Outside the other store, another man was selling yam, but we did not need any; he backed off readily and looked for the next arrival. Typical of Jamaica, people freely try to sell things and make a little living. Where there are people passing, there be markets.

On the way home, we stopped to buy fruit from a lady on the roadside, just as we entered Clarendon, from Manchester–as planned. We know her well and she was pleased to see us. We bought ortaniques, bananas, sour sop (for juice),and limes; she gave us two papayas as brawta (a little extra). She lives in her roadside shop, and I looked through the opening behind the fruit, where she had her bed. The room looked to be about 9 feet square. I wondered what else was there besides a bed. She guarded us as we tried to cross the busy road, back to the car and gave us her blessing. Screenshot 2014-02-07 07.00.51

We made one last stop, also planned, near a bend in the road where the river passes. We’d seen in the past young boys with bags of janga (fresh water shrimps/crayfish). We wanted to make soup with them. As with the yam sellers, as soon as we stopped, three youth came running with their bags aloft. They were selling one pound bags, and we got two to be sure we had enough. We bought from a boy we’d seen before, but missed out on buying because we hadn’t known the sellers would be at that spot. Now, we were ready 🙂

The car was full inside and in the trunk. That’s how it’s supposed to be when you visit the country, we joked to each other. The land is very productive and we enjoy that when we see its riches on display. But, we only see the surface, and usually that is the result who hard work and struggles needed are hidden from us.

On the radio, the first report was about the struggles of pineapples farmers in St. Elizabeth (which borders Manchester), who are being blighted by disease, low prices, and bad roads that hamper getting produce to markets. Reality check.

Daily grind

Jamaicans have shown much resilience over several decades. In local parlance, people have adopted a KMT (kiss my teeth) attitude. In other words, they show some disdain, and they’ve accepted that things will be just what they will be, and have just dug in for the long haul. Just getting on with it, would be another similar characterization. A gritted teeth determination has become part of daily life for many who live on the island.

The economy has not been a friend to all Jamaicans. Let’s take a quick look at farmers and fishers.

Those in agriculture and fishery have suffered while that sector has dealt with drought, floods, hurricanes, crop and animal diseases. Small fishermen deal with harsh conditions everyday, but have had to deal with competition from large vessels. Thefts has also plagued farmers, robbing them literally of their livelihood. Market conditions, with fluctuating prices, have also made life difficult. Capturing of land for housing has robbed agriculture of important sources of production. Financing has often been hard to obtain at affordable rates. Not surprisingly, many left the land, hoping to find easier conditions in towns.

Climatic changes have also started to have negative effects: excess rainfall, land erosion, reef destruction, have all taken their toll. Invasion of species have seen the loss of certain fish stocks.

The country has seen its international options suffer as agricultural preferential treatment dwindled. Our staples of sugar, bananas, rum, coffee, citrus have had a hard timing staying ahead of regional and wider international challenges. We’ve also been guilty of eating ourselves out of a living by importing foods at an astonishing rate. In the process, we’ve suppressed demand for many local foods. In economic finance terms, we’ve put ourselves in a horrible bind of needing too much foreign exchange to keep up with our food tastes, especially, importing meats and packaged goods.

20130924-214441.jpgSome of our leading processing companies, such as Grace Kennedy, have stayed close to the forefront in developing local foods in better packaged forms to meet local demand and also for export, and been daring in challenging huge markets abroad, including in west Africa and China.

But, legal farmers, mainly small, often little more than subsistence producers, have had a tough time.

Those who have taken chances to produce illegal goods, such as marijuana, have reportedly had good luck. Some legal farmers have added illegal produce to help them stay ahead. Some have even been bold enough to add tours of ganja farms to tourists.

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Farming is very much a mainstay of much of Jamaican life. Most people still like to eat local food and are accustomed to finding it available easily. They’re not concerned about the plight of farmers when they enjoy lower prices, such as presently the case with ripe bananas. The battle between the strong Jamaica Producers and the many small growers is helping consumers but may kill off many small cultivators. Higglers and vendors, who live by selling fruit and vegetables in many roadside places are threatened with removal from locations which become designated as ‘no vending zones’.

I heard a few stories about how chance made or killed agricultural ventures. Young family farmers, who had their calves sold and could never get the start they needed. A budding chicken farmer outwitted by natural predators, and losing 2/3 of her chicks: otherwise, unemployed and without many educational qualifications, she’s stuck without money to start again.

Many give up on farming or fishing. Many never start, hurrying to leave rural and coastal areas. Without many or any qualifications, their choices are few. Become new entrants to the ranks of higglers, but hawking non-agricultural goods? Become drivers or mechanics? Join the unemployed or underemployed. Both of these latter options put pressure on the rest of the economy. Homeless? Aimless?

Farming has rarely had an attractive image: early rising, long hours in the sun, the many challenges and failures that are the norm. Some have seen opportunities by finding niches: hill farmers who now try to be organic and focus on the healthiness of fresh fruit and vegetables. Farmers trying to link with major enterprises, such as hotels. Development of farm-to-table ventures, either through a restaurant or through direct sales to consumers. Focusing on flowers and herbs. These are small changes but none is worthless.

I’ve never heard any of my relatives, living or dead, speak of famine; I found a reference to famine in eastern parishes in 1907, after a severe drought. The thought of Jamaica without food seems ridiculous. Long may that last.

Agriculture and fishing are important first links in a long chain of employment. Forget about it or let it wither and the consequences could be ugly.

National heroics

Imagine that! I wrote a piece yesterday, which featured Minister Roger Clarke, and there I was in an audience under a big tent, listening to him, at the launching of an agricultural financing project in Morant Bay, St. Thomas.

I’ll be interested how the local media report this event, but I have several reactions. The man is keenly aware of his image, and embraces it. He told the audience how he loves seeing his cartoon in the papers and wishes he could see one everyday; he frames each one and can’t wait for when he gets his royalties for helping sell papers. He mimicked the Boltian pose from yesterday’s cartoon, and shouted its caption.

I was surprised when he touched on something similar to what I wrote, by saying that people must be wondering “What is it with these people and chicken back?” In making fun of his own image, he tried to clarify himself, saying that he had urged people to eat things other than chicken back–chicken meat, pork, fish, beef…and ox tail. He quipped that those who were now worried about the poor were really thinking about their poor dogs, for whom they usually bought chicken back. That may open up more avenues for problems.

But, he wanted to outline ways in which his ministry was trying to build bridges between local supply and demand, and rebuild production in areas where good capacity once existed but had been reduced. Jamaica’s imbalance of food imports and exports has some odd elements. Why was Jamaica importing so much ‘Irish’ potato when it could grow much more? Could the right varieties of potatoes be developed to help reduce imports of potatoes for fries? Tilapia had been produced previously in plentiful quantities, but that had diminished greatly. More onions can be produced. “We love onions! Look how much is put on the fried fish at Border?” The mortality rate for certain livestock could be reduced. Grown animals could be brought to market faster. Many crops have been hit by diseases. It was interesting and appropriate that Mr. Clarke was paired with the Minister of Health, Dr. Fenton Ferguson, who is MP for St. thomas East. Those two portfolios should work closely together.

Morant Bay has a revered position in Jamaican history and folk culture. It was the site of a rebellion in 1865, which involved the capture and execution of Paul Bogle, a native of St. Thomas and Baptist preacher, and George William Gordon, a landowner and politician. Bogle was much concerned about the conditions of the poor. Gordon was critical of the British Governor, John Eyre, for his handling of these grievances and support of abuses by the white landowners. Bogle led a group of black farmers to discuss their grievances with the Governor, but they were denied an audience. This lowered confidence in the British rulers and the group gained in membership. Bogle and members of his group were then involved in several protests, which resulted in the police being beaten into retreat. Brutal reprisals followed and a warrant was issued for Bogle’s arrest for riot and assault. He was captured, tried and executed. Gordon was also arrested for conspiracy and executed. The incidents set off political debates in Britain over the manner with which Jamaica was being governed; they became pivotal in the relation of Britain with Jamaica. Both Bogle and Gordon were made National Heroes in 1969.

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Ironically, Jamaica’s small farmers are still under the cosh. They are sometimes at a loss to fix the ‘markets’: difficulties in moving produce; options for dealing with gluts; inability to deal with big producers and retailers, who could turn quickly to imports; financing problems; losses from praedial larceny (by the “two footed puss”). But, small farmers are the backbone of much of the food production which Jamaicans love to see and eat: yams, potatoes, callaloo, ackees, dasheen, cho-cho (Christophine), okra, mangoes, plantains, peas, more…

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Take a road trip through the island and you’ll see that up close. Most people love that aspect of Jamaica, along with the many and tasty options for cooked food on the road. We know the wildly varied offerings at produce markets, such as Coronation. Let’s not get into health issues here, but our local producers know what people want, even if what they have to offer seems limited compared with supermarkets.

So, we are headed back to Kingston and roadside vendors have much of what we could want by way of fruit: sweet sop, sour sop, mangoes, plantains, bananas, naseberries, plus honey, molasses, and noni juice. My wife is easily tempted, and when she hears the prices, not for single fruit but for bowlfuls, she’s transported back to our days in Guinea, when we got similar offerings. We buy enough to share. A happy carful.

Buy local, eat local! It’s more than a hollow mantra. I do not like temperate fruit enough for them to get first pick. Sure, I’ll find a use for them, but do I want to pay four times the price just to have blueberries or Bartlett pears? I don’t think so. Those whose income allow, can choose the many imports, but is it because we have to show we can? When I ate jackfruit this week did I wish for something foreign? No. Our visitors don’t come here to eat what they buy in Bethesda. In Gandhian style, it’s good to try to be the change you wish to see.

I’m not on a campaign to erase the US$1 billion food import bill singlehandedly, but I can see ways to dent it.

Now, I’m going to check how my little market garden is starting to grow.