February 3, 2016 By Titus Boye-Thompson – Development Communications Expert
The arrival of a new Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security in Sierra Leone may yet signal a new beginning or paradigm for agricultural reform strategies in a post-conflict and fledgling democracy characterized yet still by evidence of a fragile state construct. The significance of new thinking in agricultural reform would have to weigh heavily on policy developments going forwards and under the ambit of a post-Ebola reform agenda, the ability to make tough and firm decisions in agro-based reform should become a defining context for the new direction that the new Minister must adopt. It is of no mean significance that Prof. Monty Jones is a distinguished agriculturist and an expert of world renown. He has been listed as one of the world’s most 100 influential people and as a winner of the coveted World Food Prize, has risen to one of the highest positions in agriculture. His reputation as an administrator is relatively unmatched in the field as head of FARA, he was successful in leading a team of noted agricultural research scientists to develop the New Rice for Africa, the NERICA rice, a strain of rice that combines the high yield capability of the Asian varieties with the resilience of the African crop to produce a veritable hybrid variety of rice with the capacity to produce upwards of three yields per year.
The contextual significance for highlighting Prof Monty Jones’ credentials is not to undermine his influence and vast experience that is now left open to the vagaries of an officialdom that would hold no brief in reducing a potential opportunity for achieving a paradigm shift in agricultural production and sector process management to one of abject stagnation. In the event, a cursory appreciation of some of the key issues in agricultural reform strategies may be necessary to assist in an understanding of the grave problem of securing immediate gains unless some structural adjustments necessary for establishing a development trajectory is engaged with some measured urgency.
Contemporary agricultural policy is embedded in neo-liberalist concepts of market dynamics and value chain management. Sierra Leone poses a distinct disadvantage in the absence of a regulated market for agricultural land nor an inherent market capitalization of agricultural inputs and process flow. What this means is that because agricultural land is not held as freehold, there is an immediate problem in establishing it as a major factor of production in economic terms. It does not hold value and neither could it transfer value as wealth or asset. Those who hold agricultural land do so in the name of the community, they hold tenure on the land and therefore such tenure is transient and impractical for economic negotiations. In the event, when large scale land is required for agriculture, it is done through a series of negotiations none of which guarantees fairness to the farmer, the Chief or elders of the traditional asset.
The Government in part is expected to step into the breach as an independent negotiator but in actuality, no Government can be independent where the lure of rent seeking hovers against the aspiration to be seen to be making a difference by attracting investment into what may be considered useless piece of land that could never be fully exploited using traditional implements. It is for such reasons that the negotiations would cover issues such as youth unemployment and the potential for industrial large scale agriculture to bring in new jobs and economic well being for the local community.
The arguments around communal ownership and rights to traditional lands would be subsumed under a more clairvoyant aspiration for agricultural value chain, logistics and transportation throughputs that would yield new opportunities for the local economy. These arguments still do not obviate the impracticalities of the state of readiness of the local or even a broader economy to leverage the necessary investments and inputs to support such lofty ideals. Nevertheless, the fact still remains that the outcomes of any such negotiations ultimately leave the local farmers poorer, their ability to feed themselves more intractable and the opportunities of a promised economic expansion in an agricultural value chain vanishing due to lack of logistical and institutional access to credit and technical expertise.
The land tenure system, notwithstanding its problematic nature in agricultural expansion by leveraged investments in the sector in Sierra Leone, would have been adequate security for ensuring that the increased productivity and the gains for local economies would indeed accrue to local communities. Sustainable farming techniques require that local farmers are kept up to speed with new developments in farming methodologies, that they are consulted on the conditions and traditions concerning their land. Food sovereignty, which is the aspiration that came out of negotiations in various international agricultural conferences and talks such as GATT, the Doha Round etc, accepted that localized food systems are the foundations of self-sufficiency, incomes culture and economies around the world.
The introduction of expansive farming methods invariably jeopardizes food sovereignty to the extent that it restricts the ability of local farmers to grow their own crops, to feed themselves and invariably engage in an agricultural market dynamic that makes it easier for the farmer to buy his food from those who could produce at a more efficient rate due to his endemic poverty. The transfer of huge tracts of land to industrialized farming of agro fuels does very little for local economies or the wealth of local farmers whose lands were appropriated for such activities. Large corporations such as MONSANTO who produce Genetically Modified (GM) crops have been known to engage in sharp practices, forcing farmers to pay for their seeds at relatively higher costs than the farmers could muster due to their small holdings. In event, while assessing the problematic nature of Sierra Leone’s tenure and land use management systems, it is necessary to identify the strategic role that Government can play in securing a high yield, resilient variety of crops that would generate cash and a market for value chain dynamic.
This is where the capacity of the new Minister at MAFFS should differ markedly from his predecessor. He is well advised to engage with those who would bring in fresh thinking into the agricultural dynamic. Some of our Chiefs are known to be very receptive to methodologies that would support much higher yields without necessarily subsuming their traditional roles as custodians of traditional lands. They are also known to be open to a wider engagement of young people in agriculture and the establishment of a value chain that would increase agricultural product processing whilst retaining food nutrients and local crops. It would benefit the President’s agenda if the Minister is allowed the latitude to deploy his own techniques and engage trusted professionals without the restrictions that politics would normally impose on such a position. He should be allowed to choose those he wishes to engage and engage them swiftly in his attempt to make a difference. The critical issues in agricultural reform strategies are not insurmountable though they are, to a large extent, problematic.