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Government Housing Project Jeopardizes Agricultural Research Stations

The station supports the jobs of farmers by researching ways to combat diseases, it grows seeds for local and regional regeneration, and provides vital experimental data to support food security on the island.

Several local, regional and international data collection projects are likely to be abandoned as the government continues to clear lands at the Dunbars Agricultural Station to build homes. 

Land clearing around the area reportedly began three weeks ago but the destruction of key root crops and irrigation systems at the station last Friday, came as a surprise to staff who work at the Dunbars Experimental Station and the Cotton Division. The station looks at crop treatment, seed growth and disease monitoring and control and also helps collect meteorological data.

In a meeting Tuesday morning, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Dunbars Agriculture Station staff gathered to discuss the repercussions of the government’s decision to repurpose the land for housing development. Ongoing meetings are in the works to address the relocation of the stations as well as concerns of agriculture staff displaced by the government’s housing project.

Maud Vere Bradford, Senior Research Officer says as of now, a location has not been decided.

She said perhaps if there was more consultations, qualified staff would have communicated the significance of the stations and what they do there.  “If that matter came up in a Heads of Division meeting, where we have competent, experienced officers who know areas, they could have suggested alternatives,” she remarked. 

Agriculture Minister, E.P Chet Greene has assured the workers that land-clearing developments will not negatively affect their employment prospects.  But beyond their jobs, numerous key root crops like sweet potatoes, squash, tomato, butternut and cassava have been dug up in the clearing process. “One of the fields that they are about to destroy, now we’re doing the assessment, we realise that field has one more month,” she said. 

Staff was also preparing to start a research project with the Carribbean Agriculture Research and Development Institute (CARDI) to collect data from Dunbar’s agro ecological zone that would take up to six months to conclude – that too will have to be temporarily abandoned.

Furthermore, a cotton station established in 1946 also plays a vital role in regional crop production and sustainability. Antigua was chosen as the base to produce and multiply cotton seeds.  By growing the Montserrat Sea Island Cotton, in 2019, the station was able to revitalize the cotton production industry in Barbados. “ We sent 12 pounds to Barbados to reignite their industry because they lost the variety due to cross pollination,” the agronomist recalled. 

In addition, three weather stations will have to be removed from the area, with no plan as to where they will go. One station belongs to the agricultural station and CARDI while the other two are the property of the national Met Office.  

“There is no proper communication and even if they communicate – you communicate with the P.S (permanent secretary) – you communicate with the Director but you didn’t communicate with the heads of division or even the staff that are involved in the work on these stations,” Vere Bradford explained. 

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Dale Destin, Director at the Antigua & Barbuda Meteorological Services said he learnt of the issue on Saturday and was able to make a site visit on Tuesday morning. 

According to him, one of the stations was placed there specifically to conduct an experiment by the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH) and the Agriculture Ministry, using international donor funds and providing support for weather data. 

“Looks like that will have to be abandoned. The results were to benefit other Caribbean countries in our quest for climate resilience and food security,” he said.

He added that these are the only two stations the Met Office have on that side of the islands and “we don’t know where we will put them”. “Such stations cannot be just taken up overnight. And they require special citing, away from obstacles etc. to meet international requirements …And we don’t have the ready resources to hand (or location) to relocate them.”

He said he has not been contacted by the Housing Ministry with more information. Vere Bradford also maintains that herself and her staff were not made aware of the Cabinet’s decision to repurpose the land.

“The staff and myself were not made aware.” “I also noted that there was mention of a Cabinet decision,  Senior Research Officer Bradford does not receive Cabinet decisions,” she added.

The senior officer said the fault is of her superiors who failed to communicate whatever decision was made. She said while station staff cannot change a government policy, they wished they were informed to be able to better prepare for the removal of crops and to conclude any experiments currently ongoing.

The Dunbar’s site was specifically selected because it produces soil types to support the study of any crop. The station supports the jobs of farmers by researching ways to combat diseases, it grows seeds for local and regional regeneration, and provides vital experimental data to support food security on the island.   

“A farmer’s problem can only be validated by doing trials at the research station. So if a farmer has a problem, rarely would we do an on-farm trial because you have no control of the trial in a farm area.”

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So, the research station is the area where you would replicate that trial, and you will monitor it, and you will collect data,” she shared.

The area in Dunbars was specifically selected decades ago because the results of soil tests revealed that the area has representative soil types of all soil types in Antigua and Barbuda, and so, any crop can be cultivated there. 

It has approximately nine (9) acres of land available for the development of crop research which involves the validation of technologies, protection and conservation of plant genetic resources, data/information gathering and dissemination of research work in enhancing technology transfer.

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