Agriculture Minister Moses Jn. Baptiste does not expect to yield to the Opposition’s request to repeal a recently passed Agriculture and Fisheries Incentive Act.
He has deemed calls for the act’s repeal as “partisan political.”
The act was passed through committee stage at parliament on April 15, and is now in the hands of the attorney general. It will later be sent to the governor general for final approval and printed with amendments.
The act seeks to provide incentives for agriculture and fisheries related enterprises. These incentives include exemptions on imports, customs duties and excise tax. There will also be exemptions on income tax for up to 10 years in the first instance, for business enterprises involved in agriculture and fisheries.
Nearly 200 farmers, during a meeting in Micoud on Wednesday, decided to support the Opposition United Workers Party’s appeal to have the legislation revoked.
One of the main criticisms of the bill is that, the rules and regulations within it make it “almost impossible” for most local farmers to comply and hence qualify and benefit from incentives. One farmer said the bill seeks to “exterminate farmers.”
But in an exclusive interview with Saint Lucia News Online (SNO), Agriculture Minister Moses Jn Bapstiste rejected that suggestion. He assured that government is prepared to work with all farmers, regardless of whether they are in a position to comply with guidelines under the act initially.
A major contention, according to him, relates to a condition stipulated in a schedule attached to the act which states that farmers who cultivate bananas, vegetables, food and root crops within 25 meters of waterways will not qualify for incentives. This is a measure deemed necessary to preserve water resources and reduce contamination of the water ways.
Nevertheless, Jn. Baptiste informed that such law is not draconian in nature and that an amendment was made to afford the minister authority to have the schedule modified, in order to cater for farmers, who had already cultivated near river banks and other waterways.
“We would work with those farmers, still provide them with incentives, but work with them over a period of time so that they move cultivation away from the river bank because of obvious reasons,” he said.
The minister was adamant that the “act does not prevent anybody from planting crops in any area.”
“What it does is it provides guidelines for the application of incentives to individuals who apply. For example, people with swine operations within a certain distance from the river bank, would be discouraged from receiving incentives if it is not within a certain distance of the river bank or if he does not have proper waste disposal for the piggery unit,” Jn. Baptiste explained.
According to the minister, the Act mainly attaches eligibility criteria for individuals who will apply for the incentives. “So the Act does not say that you cannot plant by the river bank. What it says is that if you apply for incentives then there is a certain standard, a certain eligibility criteria …” he added.
Jn. Baptiste said that government does not want to “disenfranchise farmers” who are planting near the river bank. He pointed to his deliberations in parliament where he indicated that farmers who would need assistance over a period of time in order to adjust to some of the conditions under the Agriculture and Fisheries Incentives Act would be given support from government.
He further gave the assurance that his ministry is willing to provide farmers who are on lands that are unsuitable for their ventures, with other lands.
Jn. Baptiste, in continuing to defend the act indicated that the piece of legislation is wide reaching and caters to majority of the farming community as it gives incentives to farmers who have minimal farm animals and crops enterprises.
He said a number of other aspects of agriculture, such as essential oil enterprises, are not yet included in the Schedule and may be added in as time goes by.
Moreover, Jn. Baptiste labelled the opposition’s call for a repeal of the act as “partisan and political.” According to him, Leader of the Opposition Dr. Gale Rigobert and her colleagues had all agreed to the legislation when it was being discussed at committee stage (where it could have been modified) in parliament before being sent to the Senate.
“The prime minister is on record and the tapes can be reviewed… to verify this. The prime minister after we had all of our deliberations asked the leader of the opposition more than once whether she was satisfied. She wanted to be sure that we did as we promised that we would make the amendments so that the minister is authorised to amend the schedule. When she was told yes she agreed with the recommendations,” he said.
“So for the Opposition to now turn back and say that they don’t agree is very disingenuous, is very deceit[ful] and anybody can review the tapes. They can go to the records and to see what exactly the leader of the opposition agreed to and today they are turning back and they don’t agree,” he stated.
He further spoke against calls by UWP Chairman and former Minister for Agriculture Senator Ezechiel Joseph, for changes in the bill.
“He was the minister of agriculture just two-and-a-half-years ago. He spent five years as minister for agriculture. He did not take a bill for an Agriculture and Incentives Act to the parliament and in fact we were operating under the old agriculture incentives regime, which would not cover all the areas that we are covering now. And so if the Opposition is arguing that there should be other things in the bill, and other things in the act, they were in office for five years not too long ago and they didn’t do it, so I do not know what [their] intentions [are] if it would not be partisan political,” the minister said.
Jn. Baptiste in the meantime, has promised that copies of the act will be circulated to the public as soon as the final approval and printing is done.