Jamaica — The Police High Command has launched an investigation intoTuesday’s massive bush fire in sections of St Elizabeth, which ravaged 64hectares of crops, estimated at $26 million.
Just under 100 farmers were affected by the blaze, which scorched more than 125 hectares of arable land in several communities, including Ivor Cottage, Big Woods, Retreat and Retirement.
Agriculture Minister Christopher Tufton, who met with the affected farmers at the Big Woods Primary School on Thursday, said following discussions with Security Minister Derrick Smith and Police Commissioner Hardley Lewin, a decision was taken to undertake the probe.
“I spoke to the minister and the commissioner this morning (Thursday) and they have said that the investigation will include taking statements from persons who have been affected and from persons who have said that they saw what took place that led to the fire,” Tufton said.
Farmers in the affected communities alleged that the fire was caused by the burning of ganja fields by narcotics police in Big Woods.
Tufton said, however, that while the police have admitted that they did in fact undertake the destruction of ganja fields in the community, they maintained that the operation did not result in the destruction of the farmers’ crops.
A dejected Wilbert Hutchinson stoops in his plot of scorched escallion on Tuesday, following a massive bush fire that ravaged his farm in the Ivor Cottage community of St Elizabeth. (Photo: Mark Cummings)
“They have said to me that they did carry out an operation in the area,and they did lit a fire to destroy the ganja but as far as they are concerned,they did put out the fire after the ganja crop was destroyed,” Tufton said.”They said, too, that when they left the location there were no fire.”
Police intelligence suggest that St Elizabeth, Jamaica’s bread basket, isranked amongst the island’s leading parish in the cultivation of the ganja.
On Thursday, the agriculture minister, pointing to the economic importance ofthe cultivation of the illegal crop, called for viable alternatives to be givento the ganja farmers. “I represent this constituency (South West St Elizabeth) and I know thatthis might be a controversial statement, but I can tell you that if it wasn’tfor ganja many children in this constituency would not be able to go toschool,” Tufton said. “While I am not condoning the cultivation of marijuana, I am telling youthat if it wasn’t for it many constituents just would not survive because thealternatives are either not there or not as viable,” he added.
He said that on assuming the position of agriculture minister five monthsago, he had written letters to the security minister and US ambassador, BrendaLa Grange Johnson requesting alternative programmes to ganja farming, but theresponse, he said, has been disappointing.
Despite, the disappointment, Tufton said, he would continue to agitate forthe implementation of alternative programmes for ganja farmers.
Meanwhile, Tufton said the farmers whose crops were affected by Tuesday’sfire will, as of early next week, begin to get assistance in the form oftechnical advice and planting materials from the Rural Agricultural DevelopmentAuthority (RADA).
He said over the next few days he would also be meeting with otherstakeholders to see how best the farmers can be compensated.