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Devant: Go to a lawyer, not me
Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj is advising farmers to “seek legal redress in the courts” to recover $800,000 owed to them by the T&T Agri-Business Association (TTABA). “My advice to them is to go to a lawyer…not me. TTABA has assets. Let them take assets,” Maharaj said, in response to reports that scores of the TTABA’s contracted farmers were seeking his intervention to help retrieve the outstanding payments. He said while his heart went out to the affected farmers, there was nothing he could do.
“Not one of those farmers came to the ministry or me and asked for advice. You pay them and what would you do with the produce? You can’t get rid of it.” He said the farmers should not have affiliated themselves with TTABA in the first place, and may very well have to cut their losses and move on.
Cassava farmers Steve Mano, Salim Langtoo and Mohanlal Kissoonsingh claim TTABA collectively owes them $73,000, while farmer Yagram Ramkissoon said the company refused to accept the 50,000 pounds of cassava he was contracted to cultivate. Ramkissoon said the cassava was rotting in his five-acre field in central Trinidad and he had been unable to pay his bank loans and support his family.
$250 million spent on TTABA
TTABA was established in May 2006 by private sector agri-business stakeholders with support from Government to accelerate national economic and social development through sustainable expansion of the agri-business sector. In 2012, Maharaj stopped TTABA’s subventions, stating the organisation was a runaway horse since there were no checks and balances or accountability.
The subventions were stopped after a November 2011 systems audit by the Central Audit Committee of the Ministry of Finance’s Investments Division showed that TTABA had incurred $49.6 million in net losses in commercial operations, with an additional $23 million spent on non-commercial activities. This added up to $72.6 millions over four years. TTABA’s losses in commercial operations increased from $4.2 million in 2008 to $14.8 million in 2011.
“TTABA is a not-for-profit organisation which the ministry has no interest in and if they run their business to the ground that is for TTABA to handle,” Maharaj said. He said the organisation had no links with the Government. “The PNM spent $250 million with them and they have nothing to show for it.”
Asked if Government would rescue the farmers and their crops, Maharaj said: “That was a private arrangement. If we were to get involved, a precedent would be set which could be devastating and dangerous because it would mean that anyone who enters a private relationship with a private company, if the private company buss as a result of corruption, people would come to the Government for help.”
Told that tonnes of cassava were being wasted, Maharaj said: “That is why the ministry has various programmes for farmers to participate in.”
Farmers in limbo
Mano, Langtoo, Kissoonsingh and Ramkissoon are four of several farmers who signed two-year contracts to supply TTABA with cassava at $2 a pound for grades A and B, while grade C was priced at $1 a pound. Mano said the farmers had about $3 million worth of cassava decaying in their fields because TTABA had significantly slashed its intake of commodities from suppliers. Due to a glut of cassava on the market, the farmers said, buyers at the Norris Deonarine Wholesale Market in Macoya were rejecting the crop.
“Last week I took several bags to the market and nobody wanted to buy. I had to take it back home. It still in the bags under my house,” Mano complained. Cassava is being sold at between $1 to $1.30 per pound at the wholesale market, while at other markets consumers can get three pounds for $10.
Mano said TTABA agreed to pay its suppliers for all produce accepted no later than 14 days after delivery, but have not been honouring that commitment. He said for weeks, the farmers have been getting a “run around” from the organisation. “All they have been doing is promising to pay,” Mano said, adding that based on his calculations he was owed $9,549 for deliveries made, with the last on July 9.
Langtoo said TTABA owed him $27,607.70. He last supplied TTABA cassava on April 22 and the last cheque he received was in May. Kissoonsingh said TTABA had been in arrears of $36,586.10 for “months now.” The farmers, who are now threatening legal action, supplied the Sunday Guardian with a list of 63 farmers who are together owed $831,029.87 as of July 16.
Ramdeo Boondoo, who is fighting the farmers’ battle, said for eight months they had been clamouring for TTABA to settle the arrears and honour contracts for pommecythere, cassava and hot peppers. Boondoo, who served as TTABA’s chairman but resigned a few months ago, is president of the Root and Tubers Producers Association of Trinidad. “I have religiously over the past months at every board meeting raised these issues. The farmers are totally fed up because they are treated with such contempt,” he said.
Delays in processing payments in a timely manner
TTABA’s acting CEO Michael Gopie said the organisation would look into individual claims of outstanding payments and act accordingly. “We treat with payments to farmers on a case by case basis. Payments to farmers is an ongoing exercise as TTABA is required to purchase raw materials. TTABA injects in excess of $10 million annually into the agricultural sector through payments to local farmers,” he said.
“The challenges in relocating/consolidating operations has led to restrictions in procurement of raw materials and delays in processing payments in a timely manner. Management treats each claim for payment on a case-by-case basis.”
Gopie refused to say how much TTABA owed farmers, stating the information was private and confidential. He said a revised accounting system and financial management controls are being introduced “that will improve and/or eliminate delays in processing payments and increase efficiency in responding to payment queries.”
He said the company recently consolidated its operations from eight locations in north, central and south Trinidad into a modern food processing facility in Freeport. He described it as a project of “immense scale and cost.”
“There have been project management related delays in upgrades to electricity and other utilities. As such the processing facility and selected processing machinery have been underutilised. This has further led to a disruption in operations and farmers and other clients have been adversely affected over the past 12 months.
“Same has been communicated in real time to various stakeholders, including farmers. Management has been exhausting available channels to rectify said disruption and we anticipate business as usual for TTABA within the ensuing three months.” He said TTABA has adopted a just-in-time method of food processing which had led to significant improvements in efficiency and control of annualised operational waste.
Responding to threats of legal action by farmers, Gopie said, “contracted farmers can refer to contracts for recourse on claims against TTABA, if any. There are provisions for dispute settlement contained within the said contracts.”
Gopie said for the year TTABA had accepted an average of 12,000 pounds of cassava monthly from contracted farmers.