Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Gambian farmer is absent from the debate

There has been more political posturing by politicians and activists, and little of anything else, including the articulation of policy in a transitional setting.  Even more disheartening, in my view, is the total absence of the representation of the single most important interest group in the entire process - the Gambian farmer.

We've heard about the youth playing the central role, as if it was not a group of young, inexperienced and hardly educated folks, average aged 26, who landed us in the current mess in the first place, and about tribal balance or imbalance in the discussion but nothing else.

Political parties may point to their party manifestos, platforms and even their last political campaign and rally speeches and pamphlets as evidence to absolve themselves of this charge, and they may have a point.  But this is a new time and space where all issues are and should be articulated for the benefit of all.  What good is it if the articulation of the party's agriculture sector policy is not the central theme of the process so that ordinary Gambians and prospective supporters alike can assess how it will impact the farming community and the national economy.

The rural farming community has suffered in the hands of the current regime as much as the urban-based civil servants, and the political opposition.  Rural dwellers and farmers may not have suffered physical torture at the hands of the notorious but have suffered economic and financial loss through the A(F)PRC's inappropriate policy measures, especially in the groundnuts sector which is still the single most important sub-sector, both in terms of foreign exchange generation and employment.

There has been a steady decline in groundnut production, especially since the advent of the A(F)PRC regime, signalling inappropriate policies at best and benign neglect as worst.  A shift from groundnut to other crops, both cash and food crops, is a business decision in response to market conditions where the producer price is not attractive enough, and the government continues to credit buy, resulting in huge sums owed them by government.  Consequently, farmers have shifted to producing food crops for sustenance of the family. Public investment in the sector does not seem to reflect the public commitments and pronouncement made by the regime.  We have made numerous presentations in recent blogs about this issue, and we will continue to do so in the future.

Agricultural diversification policy of past years brought us fruit tree (primarily cashew nut), and sesame seed cultivation.  Should the policy be reinforced and expanded?  Is the idea of re-establishing a marketing board and a Cooperative Union worth revisiting?  I heard one politician argue in favor of bringing back to life the GCU because he's dissatisfied with the current system. Something is evidently wrong with the groundnut marketing arrangements as currently constituted which demands aggressive action to rescue the farmer from a system that is clearly in favor of the buyer instead of the seller, that is the farmer.  What of the livestock, fisheries and water resources sub-sectors.

The A(F)PRC regime is now suggesting that they want to transform the subsistence agriculture to commercial agriculture, and in order to achieve this new goal, they recognize that they must invest more in research, science and technology.  Agriculture research under Jammeh has suffered severe cuts in budget allocation which has resulted in poor agricultural extension services, agronomic research and general support services for the sector. These areas are hardly mentioned in any discussion, and yet they, together with the cash and food crop sectors form the backbone of our economy.  It is time for political parties and activists alike to articulate and debate the plight of the Gambian farmer and the policy options to help ameliorate the plight of the Gambian farmer.