The speed with which thousands of people dropped below the poverty line in the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 shutdown indicates the extent to which workers have been living from pay cheque to pay cheque.
With the economy in transition to an uncertain future, the need to prioritise savings and investment is more critical than ever, both at the individual and national levels. In this regard, we fully endorse the call, most recently made by economist Dr Terrence Farrell, for the Government to separate the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF) into its two constituent elements.
Especially now, the heritage part of the HSF should be hived off and protected for future generations who may find themselves on a much rockier road than the bumpy one we are on. It might be hard to imagine now but, today’s middle-age to pension-age generation reaped and consumed much of the fruit from the energy booms that made T&T the wealthiest country of the English-speaking Caribbean. Today’s children, however, will inherit a vastly different economy.
The writing is on the wall for oil and gas economies although gas will survive as a transition fuel towards a future based on renewable energy. Despite knowing this for decades, T&T is still nowhere close to transforming its economic base and is therefore not ready for the future coming around the corner. This is why the heritage funds inside the HSF must be removed and secured in a separate fund for the next generation.
Today, Finance Minister Colm Imbert is expected to announce details of a massive investment in the agricultural sector with a significant capital injection and distribution of State lands. Producing food for home consumption and export is an absolute priority given the big chunk of foreign exchange revenue that T&T spends on importing some 80 per cent of its food. However, optimism must be tempered by the State’s record in implementing and managing agricultural initiatives going back to Wallerfield and Carlsen Field, mega farms, the Caroni Ltd diversification programme and so on.
A useful point of reference here is the findings of an enquiry into the allocation and utilisation of State lands for food production by Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Land and Physical Infrastructure. This was initiated in November 2015, two months after the Rowley administration took office.
Appearing before the committee, the Ministry of Agriculture Lands and Fisheries disclosed that less than 20 per cent of agricultural lands are fully utilised with much under-utilisation of parcels of agricultural State lands. Among the reasons cited were the complex process for leasing lands which leaves most of the occupants on State agricultural lands holding invalid tenancy documents; major inefficiency and the virtual collapse of the system of land management and administration; frequent changes in management/leadership leading to frequent changes in land management policies; an ineffective administrative structure resulting in the improper transfer of land rights; and inefficient mechanisms for removing squatters from State lands.
The ministry’s headway in disentangling land rights and title issues is a critical but not sufficient condition for stimulating an agricultural boom. Perhaps a workable formula will finally be revealed in Minister Imbert’s budget today.