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Life | When the Cows Come Home

Jamaica – island of sun, rum and reggae. But away from the beaches and resorts there’s another rural Jamaica, struggling to make ends meet on farming. And it’s here that you can find the ‘Jamaica Hope’ – the island’s very own dairy cow, bred specially to withstand the tropical heat. But despite the success of the breed and unprecedented consumer demand for milk, the dairy industry is facing a crisis. This edition of Life looks at how – with cruel irony – the Jamaica Hope is under threat from subsidised European Dairy Farmers and asks how Europe’s agricultural policies square with its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals.

Away from the beaches and resorts, though, there’s another Jamaica, struggling to make ends meet, where most people eke out a living on under a dollar a day. And that struggle is personified by the ‘Jamaica Hope’ – a unique and successful breed of dairy cow. But in a country where demand for milk outstrips what farmers can supply, the ‘Jamaica Hope’ – and the dairy industry it should have underpinned – are facing a crisis.

Milk is part of the staple diet of many of the 2.6 million people living in Jamaica. But dairy production’s difficult in tropical climates – so most of the island’s milk was always imported. In the early part of the 20th century breeders helped produce a dairy cow that could withstand the island’s heat and tropical diseases. They called it the Jamaica Hope. In a country where one in five islanders work in agriculture, it was a major step toward sustainable rural development.

Dr. Byron Lawrence is Head of the Jamaica Hope Breeding Programme: ‘People of Jamaica are extremely proud of Jamaica Hope – Jamaica Hope is a Jamaican creation for Jamaican conditions, it is able to survive under the existing forage regime that exists in Jamaica. It is able to also survive under the hot, humid tropical environment that exists in Jamaica and even then produces a fair quantity of milk.’

In the 1980s the outlook for Jamaica’s dairy farmers had been good. Production more than doubled – up from 17 and a half million litres in 1981 to 38 million litres by 1992. But in 1991 and 1992 Jamaica’s economy went into a tailspin. And trade and tariff barriers, subsidies and protected markets, have brought hardship to the dairy farmers.

Orel Rayson is a Jamaican dairy farmer:Orel Rayson is a Jamaican dairy farmer: ‘It was good in the beginning. I started off with one cow. I used to milk with my hand. I got to milk seventeen with my hands. Twice a day, I alone, it was so nice. And while I was praying that I could sell a hundred litres of milk, per fortnight – if I could sell a hundred litres per fortnight, I would make some money. Now I am selling two thousand litres per fortnight – sometimes more, sometimes a little less. And I still don’t make money’¦’

In negotiations with the World Bank and the IMF, the Jamaican Government was forced to agree to liberalize its economy. Duties on imported milk products were slashed from 100 per cent to just 5 per cent’¦ This led to a steady increase in dairy imports – in particular of powdered milk from the European Union – and Jamaica’s farmers just couldn’t compete with European dairy farmers on production costs.

These subsidised European milk imports have had a profound impact on the growth of Jamaica’s dairy industry. In the 1960s, there were 4,000 small farmers. By 1996, following the arrival of cheap subsidised milk products, this had shrunk to 470. And by 2002, there were just 90 left.

Donny Bunting had to give up farming. ‘My father had been in dairy from 1940. He had a quite successful dairy, by Jamaican standards, large dairy. I took over a dairy milk and 400 head of cattle, in 1970, full of all the information from college in England’¦ We actually got very good production levels but after many years of stressful efforts to increase our production and doing so successfully we were still not able to compete with the milk powder, so eventually I was forced out of the dairy business and into the fish business.’

The Jamaican Dairy Farmers Federation claims EU subsidies mean Europe’s farmer can produce milk at half what it costs Jamaican farmers. They say this is unfair, has made Jamaican milk uneconomic, and they accuse the EU of ‘dumping’ its excess milk products’¦ But European farmers says that’s just market forces’¦

Dutch dairy farmer Jan Hesselink says: ‘When you see that they produce milk in a country where milk cannot be produced, that is like us trying to grow rice over here. They shouldn’t try and still they do, with cows that produce not even 700 litres in a year. So how can you say that we are spoiling their milk?’

But even James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, is uncomfortable with the situation: ‘We live in a world of 6 billion people, 3 billion people that live under two dollars a day. European cows get subsidised to the extent of $2.50 a day (Japanese cows get subsidised to extent of $7.50 a day) so there’s something disproportionate in terms of the way that we’re attending to the question of poverty.’

Professor Michael Witter, Chairman of Jamaican Agricultural BoardProfessor Michael Witter, Chairman of Jamaican Agricultural Board, who represented the Jamaican Government in the negotiations with the IMF, explains the thinking that has created the current situation: ‘As a part of that liberalisation [insisted on by the IMF] comes the removal of taxes and the removal of special concessions to local producers. The philosophy behind that was this neoliberal notion that markets know best, and if we remove the protection, our producers would be made more competitive as a result of competition with external, more efficient producers.’

But these producers also turn out to have subsidies, which are mysteriously allowed to remain in place. ‘In reality we had to buy into what is called a level playing field policy when there was no level playing field.’

Wolfensohn admits the logic of this: ‘I think everyone believes that a free market is probably in everyone’s best interests. But what you cannot have is subsidies and tariffs on one side, and freedom on the other because it just doesn’t work.’

The European Union has begun to reform its agricultural subsidies, but the EU believes that is not the main problem for countries like Jamaica. Spokesman Gregor Kreruzhuber: ‘Does one serious believe that the Jamaican farmers could compete with the big boys in milk production who are very competitive like New Zealand for example or like Australia?’

But Philip Bloomer of OXFAM International insists that the EU is the main problem: ‘They can produce milk at world market prices What they can’t do – just compete against European subsidies of 1.5 billion on the exports from Europe into the world to make sure that Europe actually produces and dumps milk below the cost of production.’

The Cancun trade conferenceThe Cancun trade conference failed, but now the rich countries are prepared to make concessions to ensure that the next round doesn’t fail as well. Gregor Kreuzhuber: ‘What we are proposing in the WTO is that developing countries, poorer countries should obviously have the right to protect their markets much more than for example Europe. This is clear and should be clear.’

But as things are, Orel Rayson is going to have to kill the calf that his cow is expecting, because no one would buy it – he could not even give it away. ‘Not even for free, and I cannot feed it, so I get rid of them. It is hard for us. By the amount of work that I put in my farm, if I would live somewhere else I would be a rich man.’

RELATED LINKS:

The Jamaica Information Service has official information on all aspects of Jamaican life.

The Jamaican Tourist Board has views and music to tempt you to Jamaica, and Jamaicans.com has recipes, pages on Jamaican culture, music and patois. Reggae round the clock is available on ReggaePlus Radio.

Read an article in the Gleaner newspaper on the Father of Jamaican Cattle, Dr Thomas P Lecky, who first bred the Jamaica Hope and other new breeds of cattle.

Read about Life and Debt, a film made by Stephanie Black which includes coverage of the dairy issue in Jamaica.

There’s an article on EU dairy dumping by Eurostep (European Solidarity Towards Equal Participation of People).

Download the World Bank’s pages on Jamaica at a glance.

The Jamaica Ministry of Agriculture and Lands produces an annual Dairy Facts & Figures.

On Oxfam UK‘s website, you can read about Mary Malcolm – the life of a dairy farmer in Jamaica. And Oxfam International has published a paper on Double Standards – How the EU should reform its trade policies with the developing world.

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