The Government is in a race against time to put farmland back into agriculture before it is overrun by squatters.

This is one of the reasons that the Keith Rowley administration is seeking Public Private Partnerships from the sprawling La Gloria Estate, once the home of thousands of heads of the buffalypso, a local version of the riverine water buffalo.

Earlier this week the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries published two expression of interest; one for the development and operation of a modern nursery and plant propagation facility on a portion of the land known as the National Seed Bank, Chaguaramas and another for strategic partners for the lease of almost 800 acres of state land at La Gloria Estate, New Grant for agricultural projects.

Speaking to the Sunday Business Guardian, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat confirmed the State sought to maximise the use of the land before it was lost to squatters.

“This lane is part of a 2400 acre parcel formerly owned by Caroni (1975) Ltd. It is at risk of being squatted upon,” said the Minister.

The land was for many years seen as part of this country’s agricultural innovation as it served as a farm for the buffalypso.

The breed was the brain child of local veterinarian Stephen Bennett as he felt the animals could provide both milk and meat to the public and that the quality of its meat and milk surpassed the traditional cattle meat in nutrition and quality.

First introduced in the 1960s, the public interest in the buffalypso gradually waned over time and the heard eventually suffered from disease.

Rambharat confirmed while La Gloria had been used for the cattle before, the government’s current focus was on crops such as pineapple.

“While it was formerly a buffalypso farm it was in tree crops before that. We expect a lot of interest from pineapple farmers, tree crop farmers, and persons interested in mixed-use farming,” said Rambharat.

“We would like to complete the EOI process by end of 2021 and recommend successful applicants to Cabinet.”

La Gloria is situated in George Village, Tableland and the area is the heart of this country’s pineapple cultivation. However, while one former buffalypso farm is now being earmarked for another use, the Agriculture Minister confirmed the door was not shut on the animal entirely.

“The only farm is at Mora Valley in Rio Claro. That herd is Brucellossis positive and is therefore only allowed on that farm. The animals are slaughtered for sale and that continues,” he told the Sunday Business Guardian.

Brucellossis is a disease in cattle, water buffalo, and bison is caused almost exclusively by Brucella abortus.

Infection spreads rapidly and causes many abortions in unvaccinated cattle. In a herd in which disease is endemic, an infected cow typically aborts only once after exposure; subsequent gestations and lactations appear normal.

After exposure, cattle become bacteremic for a short period and develop agglutinins and other antibodies; some cattle resist infection, and a small percentage of infected cows spontaneously recover.

In terms of the seed bank in Chaguaramas in the expression of interest, the government explained the “PPP will in no way impact the current operations at the National Seed Bank but is intended to widen the product offerings in that geographic region and also provide training opportunities for young persons selected by the Ministry of Youth Development and National Service.”

According to government, the move was prompted by the limited growth of the agriculture industry on this country’s GDP despite numerous fiscal measures, such as the removal of taxes in the importation of agriculture/farming equipment, in recent years to increase participation in the sector.

The EOI stated, “In the Budget Statement 2020/2021, the Minister of Finance stated, that despite numerous generous incentives and the availability of cheap state land for production, investors and farmers have been unable to overcome consistently the structural impediments inherent in the agricultural sector.

The contribution of agriculture has been insignificant, accounting for approximately one per cent or less, as a proportion of gross domestic product over the past decade.”

The EOI added, “The decades old challenges plaguing the sector cannot be adequately addressed solely by the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries. “

This adjusted approach, unsurprisingly, has been prompted by challenges brought forward during the pandemic.

While addressing the Stand Finance Committee, Minister of Agriculture noted that several government plans were unable to be executed as up to 60 per cent of his staff were affected by lockdowns.

He also noted that with restrictions on constructions several projects were also delayed.

“We’ve not been able to execute some of the infrastructure works because of the restriction on construction activities and we are ready to do that in this fiscal year,” he said, while adding in some cases finances allocated to these projects experienced shortfalls as a result.

This challenges prompted the government to turn to the private sector to help, according to the EOI.

“The protracted COVID-19 pandemic crisis has resulted in renewed thinking geared to building resilience and insulating the economy against the impact of shortages and supply chain disruptions by ensuring that food supplies are adequate.

“The GORTT is cognisant of the challenges faced in the sector and has taken immediate steps to mitigate challenges by adopting policy positions to aggressively boost the sector.

“Policy responses are directed toward reducing the country’s dependence on specific imported foods and increasing productive capacity and accessibility to domestic produce,” said the EOI for the Seed Bank project.

The government noted T&T imports close to $2 billion in agricultural products which represents almost one-third of the country’s entire import bill.

The EOI documents explained, “Making T&T a food secure nation demands a shift in the perception of agriculture from being a manually intensive, high-risk, low-reward activity to one that is essential to the well-being of the country. Technology-based farming should be promoted as a way of achieving sustained growth and competitiveness in the sector.”

Amid this background, private investors were invited to come out Saturday to visit the La Gloria Estate as the government hoped to attract investors to the state land which once were a part of Caroni 1975 Ltd.

The investors they hope to attract are “new and existing farmers with significant experience and technical financial capacity for the lease of the entire or appropriate sections of the 790 acres for all or any of the following activities: livestock, mixed use, or any other commercial use related to agriculture.”

Rambharat confirmed there were other Public Private Partnership projects being pursued by the government as well.

“We have used the PPP approach to other projects including Aripo Livestock and Namdevco’s Brechin Castle, Couva packing house,” he said in response to questions about the La Gloria Estate Expression of Interest.