Lee-Chin has rubbished a report that he is abandoning a major agricultural farm at Innswood, St Catherine, for a housing development, saying that the story is false and his investment in the food production project is still active.
“The bottom line is that I have not resiled, I have not withdrawn from the initial goal of making Jamaica food secure. So it’s a lie what was published,” Lee-Chin told the Jamaica Observer on Monday.
The Jamaican-Canadian billionaire business mogul and chairman of Portland Holdings Inc was responding to a report in last Friday’s Gleaner newspaper which stated that a group of investors, led by him, had planned to repurpose 3,000 acres of prime farmlands at Innswood for housing.
The story resulted in the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) calling on the Government for “full disclosure of the terms and agreements of the sale of agricultural lands to Portland Holdings”.
A joint release from Lothan Cousins, the party’s spokesman on water and agriculture, and Senator Sophia Frazer-Binns, spokeswoman on land, environment and climate change, said the party was making the call against the background that the PNP had information that “the 3,000 acres acquired by Lee-Chin and company has irrigation infrastructure, making it extremely high value for agricultural purposes. Additionally, land zoned for agricultural use is priced significantly lower than land zoned for housing”.
Cousins warned the Government “to desist from venturing down this path of allowing private investors to use arable lands, designated for food production, to be used for exploitative profit generation purposes with no clear national gain”.
He also said, “There is a looming food security crisis as food prices have been rising since the pandemic and will continue to rise due to raw material shortages caused by disruptions in global supply chains. It would serve Jamaica’s interest if the Government turns its focus on securing our arable lands and prioritising food production investments”.
Additionally, Cousins encouraged the Government “to vigorously resist this application for change of the use of land”, while Senator Frazer-Binns called for a revision of the country’s land-use policy.
However, on Monday Lee-Chin said he had entered into a lease agreement with Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) Holdings in August 2019 for 2,600 acres of land at Innswood left idle after the demise of the island’s sugar industry.
His motivation, he said, was to ensure food security for Jamaica as well as to encourage other investors to get into agriculture on a large scale “so that not only can we feed ourselves but we can also export”.
The scale of the operation, he explained, had to be as such that the products could “come in at a price that is globally competitive”.
“We cannot have an agriculture industry by having two-acre plots. We need large-scale agriculture, no different from Canada, Holland, America, and other countries. So it has to be scaled so that we can get the prices down, because if the prices are not competitive globally it won’t work,” he told the Observer.
“But you don’t put 2,600 acres into production all at once, because you’re not sure what [is] going to grow… you have to find out what works in that particular area, and that takes a while, because that area had never been farmed other than sugar cane.
“So the strategy was, initially to get some cash flow we would plant cash crops so the operation can be sustainable,” Lee-Chin explained.
He acquired Israeli expertise from Gideon Siterman and Iftach Werner “to make sure we got it right”.
Lee-Chin also said that he has been working with the Rural Agricultural Development Authority; the ministries of health and agriculture; fertiliser supplier Newport Fersan Jamaica; and the College of Agriculture, Science, and Education.
Initially they planted onion, sweet pepper, Irish potato, scallion, and pumpkin on 400 acres. However, Lee-Chin said, given the soil type, they concluded that cash crops will not work.
“Although we had moderate success with those crops, the success wasn’t enough, so we decided to pivot to orchard farming, which include avocado and mango. So we are now studying that. So that is now work-in-progress,” he told the Observer, adding that he has already invested more than US$6 million in the property, US$2 million of which went into irrigation.
Regarding the claim that he plans to repurpose the land, Lee-Chin said he learnt six months ago that SCJ had, in 2017, applied for a land-use change for 1,200 acres of the 2,600 acres he had leased.
“I did not make that application. This was before my time,” he said.
He told the Observer that after he found out about the application he approached SCJ to explore the possibility of participation in the development, “but not to the detriment of the agriculture project”.
Those talks, he said, are still ongoing as no decision has been reached.
“So we have 400 acres now under cultivation, which was the first phase, and the intent is once we conclude that a crop is appropriate for that area, we scale it up,” Lee-Chin explained.
Efforts to contact SCJ Holdings Managing Director Joseph Shoucair were not successful.
Siterman, in the meantime, noted that after the novel coronavirus pandemic hit they continued the farm project.
“We tried crops to determine what is good and what doesn’t work,” he told the Observer. “For three years more than 30 people were on the payroll, so no one can say we had housing in the back of our minds. It’s far away from the truth.”
On Monday afternoon, the Cabinet issued a statement saying “There has been no sale of the Innswood lands and the Government has not made any decision to sell the lands in question.”
The conditions of the lease, the Cabinet added, restrict the use of the lands for agricultural purposes only.
It added that “that there are established laws, policies, and procedures to transparently deal with the sale and development of Government lands” and said “the established processes will be strictly followed in this matter”.
“While Government is committed to building out affordable housing for the Jamaican people, this will not be at the expense of agriculture,” the Cabinet said.