Coming full circle: From agriculture to oil and gas, and back again
As the economic costs of climate change and food insecurity continue to rise in Trinidad and Tobago, this is a pivotal time to build awareness of agricultural innovation and best practices in the region. In this blog, business writer and WRENmedia correspondent, Natalie Dookie, explores the opportunities for the agriculture sector and how communication can bring about change.
Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, the granddaughter of cocoa farmers on my father’s side, and of a technical-vocational trainer in the oil and gas sector on my mother’s side, my family background juxtaposed the economic extremes of my homeland. Founded as one of many plantation economies in the Caribbean, in the late 1800s, T&T became an anomaly – having discovered oil. Today, with more than 100 years of oil production under its belt, we remain mostly a mono-product economy, reliant on a combination of oil and gas revenues.
But T&T is also a place of diversity, and one of the few countries in the world which can boast of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society. South Africa's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is fondly remembered for calling us, “a rainbow nation.” It is said that a “real Trinbagonian” can cook Indian, Creole, Chinese and Trini cuisine! I should have honed my non-existent roti-making skills whenever we visited my grandparents in the wiles of Rio Claro in rural south-eastern Trinidad, but I was too busy playing in the cocoa house.
Moving away from agriculture
My great-grandparents came from India to Trinidad as indentured labourers. Over time, my father’s father amassed several acres of land and delved mainly into cocoa farming, he also grew citrus crops. It was not an easy life between hot sun and pouring rain, no formal tools and little mechanisation. The dream of most descendants of indentured labourers and slaves was that the next generation would not make farming their career. While I was their first grandchild to attend university, I was certainly not the last, and I happily look on as the next generation studies law and medicine among other areas.
As my family moved away from agriculture, so did the T&T economy, eventually becoming susceptible to the ills of ‘dutch disease’ associated with economies reliant on one sector – oil and gas. The move away from agriculture has left us with a food import bill of more than US$590 million per year for 1.4 million people. Reduced foreign exchange, as a result of a fall in commodity prices, along with the effects of climate change and the recent impact of floods and droughts, has brought the issue of food security back to the foreground of economic conversations.
Bringing change to the sector
Since joining the Spore team in late 2016, I have been able to use this platform to highlight the many innovative projects being rolled out across the region’s agricultural sector, and to share best practices, learnings and solutions to the specific challenges we face. Although agriculture has many linkages with other core industries, such as tourism and associated hospitality and catering businesses, farmers are still often side-lined at the economic table. By spreading messages of agricultural development and innovation, and creating awareness I hope that, even in some small way, I am impacting and bringing change to the sector.
Lately, I am focusing more on climate change, adaptation and mitigation issues. In March of this year, I told the story of the Jamaica Broilers Group, the largest agribusiness company in the Caribbean, which develops solar energy projects to power its farmers’ poultry houses. As a result of this initiative, carbon dioxide production in Jamaica has reduced by an estimated 3,900 tonnes per year. This provides a clear example that the rest of the region can and needs to mirror.
And how are we attracting the next generation to farming? The non-profit UNESCO organisation, WHYFARM, is helping to build a pipeline of agripreneurs by pioneering agricultural educational entertainment in the region, through videos, animations, songs and poetry. They also created the first food and nutrition superhero, Agriman, in a comic book intended to inspire youth participation in agriculture. Initiatives such as these will hopefully plant the seed of change in the minds of Caribbean youth, that farming can actually be a lucrative, sustainable career choice of the future.