by Larry Smith
Agriculture Minister V Alfred Gray recently proclaimed the Bahamas Agricultural and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI) on Andros a huge success.
Food imports will be halved within years, he suggested (which must mean we will be eating half as much). But his more fact-checkable point was that BAMSI had already produced $100 million worth of food - mostly bananas.
A visit to the BAMSI produce centre in the Levy building on East Bay Street verified that it was indeed stocked with some good-looking bananas - although not much else.
Gray said BAMSI sold 200 40-pound boxes of bananas a week, which works out to 8,000 pounds, or 416,000 pounds per year. And since BAMSI sells bananas for 49 cents a pound, the yearly revenue would be about $204,000 - a far cry from $100 million.
This is the level of accountability we get from our government, despite the fact that we are throwing tens of millions in public funds at BAMSI.
None of the information about BAMSI (now more than two years old) has ever been properly compiled or presented to the public. There is no business plan in the public domain, and the so-called memorandum of understanding with the College of the Bahamas remains unavailable.
Two years ago, the prime minister touted $23 million in construction contracts and said $100 million would eventually be invested to produce 40 food items. He claimed this would lead to the creation of a new city on Andros, but critics said it was mostly a slush fund for PLP cronies.
On the Institute's website, a video shows Godfrey Eneas (the president) garbed in pretentious academic robes delivering a graduation speech. His talk amounted to little more than fawning praise for PLP leaders, Lynden Pindling and Perry Christie.
In fact, Eneas told his audience that he had nominated Christie for the World Food Prize - a prestigious honour recognising advances in human development through food production. Unfortunately for Mr Christie, the prize went to some lowly crop scientists who had actually done something worthwhile.
Eneas characterised BAMSI as the culmination of Sir Lynden's vision for Andros as the "political capital and breadbasket" of the country. Well, it is certainly a breadbasket for some. But beyond that, perhaps he could tell us what the actual return is on such a massive investment of public funds.
The PLP claims that BAMSI is spearheading agricultural development in order to achieve the holy grail of economic diversification. This will happen, they say, by training Bahamians to become farmers and food processors, and by substituting local products for imports.
Meanwhile, as noted in this space recently, the only two commercial food processors in the country - Sawyer’s and P. W. Albury - recently closed because they were unable to compete in today’s globalised market. And this was despite decades of experience and brand recognition.
Most of the BAMSI millions appear to have been spent on the construction of buildings in the North Andros pineland. In January last year, one of these was destroyed by fire, and it was later revealed that the contractor - Audley Hanna - did not have insurance, even though that is a requirement for a government contract.
No explanation for this was ever provided by the Minister of Works. And neither has he made any of the BAMSI contacts public - as he promised to do. And this was in the face of numerous requests from parliament's fiscal watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee.
Instead, the government simply ponied up another $2 million for reconstruction. There appear to be no consequences for Hanna - who also sits on the board of the Water & Sewerage Corporation. And there is also no information on the contract bidding process - whatever it may be.
Why should this be the case? If BAMSI is such a transformational project and centrepiece of the PLP’s legacy, it should be in the government’s interest to put as much good information out there as possible - both to clear up any misunderstandings and to document the project's value.
Since this is not being done, the inescapable conclusion is that there are things to hide. The opposition FNM has made occasional noises about this, but unfortunately, we have no idea what they would do about BAMSI once in office.
Government politicos like to say that the 9/11 terror attacks demonstrated our vulnerability to international crises and pointed to the need to be more self-sufficient. But food self-sufficiency for the Bahamas is an illusion, since we still have to import the fertiliser, the equipment, and even the labour.
The fact is that ever since the failure of the loyalist plantations, large-scale agriculture has been unsustainable here. This is due mainly to competition from more efficient regional producers, combined with the limitations of our natural environment.
No doubt a range of familiar crops can be produced on Andros on a limited scale with the investment of millions of dollars. But what is the return on that investment compared to other options?
Or, to put it another way, we can certainly grow bananas in our backyard. But do we need a $100 million vanity project to do it?