Thu | Jun 20, 2019

SCJ begins compensating farmers for Bernard Lodge holdings

Published:Wednesday | May 22, 2019 | 12:06 AMNeville Graham/ - Business Reporter
Idle equipment sit on a section of the Bernard Lodge Estate. The state-owned property is to be transformed into a near 5,800-acre city.
Idle equipment sit on a section of the Bernard Lodge Estate. The state-owned property is to be transformed into a near 5,800-acre city.

SCJ Holdings Limited, the state company that controls the Bernard Lodge Estate in St Catherine, has compensated nine farmers who are to be relocated and is promising to accelerate payment to others.

That update from SCJ Holdings Chairman Joseph Shoucair comes amid allegations from the group representing the farmers that SCJ is ignoring a directive given by Prime Minister Andrew Holness that the programme to remove the farmers be reviewed.

“The prime minister in his wisdom ordered a review of the Bernard Lodge matter, but we have to seek some sort of clarification as to what that means since instead of a halt to the operations we see where the SCJ staff have speeded up their operations like never before in displacing farmers like never before,” said Hugh Johnson, president of the Small Business Association of Jamaica (SBAJ) the group speaking for the farmers.

Johnson announced at a press conference last week that the agency had hired a lawyer to challenge the Government in court, saying “there are many aspects to this operation that we think violate our rights”.

However, Shoucair says SCJ is acting on the directive of Cabinet, which has ordered that farmers being relocated should be compensated.

The size of the compensation fund is unknown.

The Jamaican Government, through SCJ Holdings and a collaboration of other state agencies, is in the process of redeveloping the former sugar estate into a near 6,000-acre city.

“The area of the amended Master Plan comprises 5,737 acres, 2,700 of which are slated for agricultural development and 1,740 for residential and commercial development,” Shoucair said.

The Bernard Lodge redevelopment is expected to be completed over a span of three to five years, and the zoned areas will be enforced, he added.

It’s estimated that there are 250 farmers on the property, who grow sugar cane, mangoes and papayas, and a range of vegetables.

Shoucair is downplaying talk of a wholesale displacement of farmers, saying only those within the parcels of land zoned for housing will be relocated.

“There is an active programme for compensation of farmers who are to be relocated,” Shoucair told the Financial Gleaner.

“Only nine farmers have so far been compensated; however, this process will be accelerated in the upcoming weeks,” he said.

Johnson asserts however that only “informal” farmers – that is, those who have created farm plots without permit or legal access to the land numbering about 120 – have been accepting compensation from SCJ Holdings.

The farmers are to be relocated from the Bernard Lodge estate to land at Salt Pond, near Hill Run, St Catherine, and most of them have already been taken on tour of the relocation sites, said Shoucair.

It’s unclear why tenanted farmers are not being accommodated on the 2,700 acres of lands at Bernard Lodge carved out for agriculture under the master plan, but sources say those properties are earmarked for specific operators who breed horses and grow special crops, such as cassava. Follow-up calls and correspondence to Shoucair were unanswered.

The SCJ chairman told the Financial Gleaner that farmers have been taken on tours of Salt Pond and are satisfied with the new site, which he described as a fair swap, with access to water and electricity.

Johnson is shooting down that claim, however, saying there is no proof that crops can be grown there, sustainably.

“Where they’re proposing to put the farmers does not have any irrigation or other infrastructure. I see some amount of land preparation taking place but all that is at Salt Pond is swamp, crocodiles and mosquitoes,” he said.

“They say that the land at Bernard Lodge is of similar soil type [to the relocation site] and can accommodate ways to do farming, but we know differently, because nothing has been grown there,” he charged.

Farmers who have a serious stake in the Bernard Lodge property are not the ones who want to move, the SBAJ president insisted.

“Those farmers who have taken up the offers made are for the most part those who were there informally, but those who are well tenanted through lease arrangements are saying that they want to remain,” Johnson said.

neville.graham@gleanerjm.com