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Land and people – a country’s most valuable resource

The cold fronts had begun and it was through sheer discipline that students and teachers got up for breakfast at 5:30 a.m. and reported for field training at 6:30 a.m. This was a daily routine, including weekends for some students, and in the case of those students assigned to the dairy unit, they had to be at their work site by 5:30 a.m. to bring in the milking cows and do the ritual.
 
It was towards the end of January of 1994, the weather was more or less as it was on Monday of this week. The land was properly tilled and the students had prepared raised beds. 5,000 lush green tomato, cabbage and sweet pepper seedlings were ready to be transplanted. At around 7:00 a.m., some 15 students received a demonstration on how to transplant, and together with the field assistant and the Crops Lecturer we began transplanting. The morning was cloudy and dry, but by 7:30 the drizzle came down – constant but slight. It was the kind of drizzle that left fine droplets on your hair and eventually your clothes and body would be wet. As soon as the drizzle began, all the students and the field assistant went to shelter under the shed.
 
I had just completed my Master’s degree from the University of the West Indies (UWI), and using group wisdom, I should have joined the students under the shed. As a matter of fact, my non-agriculture friends and my Master’s and Ph. D. colleagues often argued that with a Master’s degree I should be doing a better job than “working in the fields.” I alone continued to transplant, not saying a word to the students or field assistant.
 
The stage was set, and one by one the students, from all walks of life, came back out to transplant, under the drizzle. We transplanted all 5,000 seedlings and 99% of the seedlings survived. If it had been raining heavily, the seedlings would have been beaten up and damaged by the rainfall, and if the direct sunlight was out, the seedlings would have wilted and many would have died. The survival rates under these two (2) extreme situations or any other weather conditions would have never reached 99 %.
 
In those few minutes, as one student said to me many years later, “a powerful message was learnt without the teacher saying a word.” This is an experience the students never fail to remind me of, and it is one that I will never forget. It is an experience that, along with other integrated activities at the Belize College of Agriculture, contributed to a new work ethic in young people – a work ethic that did not fear milking cows, slaughtering chickens, driving tractors or cleaning pig pens. In fact students were not afraid of entering the shrimp ponds in South Stann Creek to get the job done, much to the satisfaction and high praise of shrimp growers like Mike Duncker, who was so impressed that he employed many graduates to replace the technicians that were normally sought from Honduras.
 
The values that were displayed in my experience above did not come from UWI. Rather it came from my late grandfather, who was my role model, my parents and the BELIZE TECHNICAL COLLEGE. The University of the West Indies, like the University of Belize, is very theoretical and has little understanding of how to deliver training in technical and vocational careers. The mindset of the lecturers and professors is fixed in a world of academia, and the ability or willingness to deliver effective practical training is absent. The foundations and work ethics that existed at the Belize College of Agriculture, the Belize School of Nursing and the Belize Technical College have been destroyed by the University of Belize. 
 
When a Director of Student Affairs, with a Ph. D., tells management and students “that cleaning pig pens is against the human rights of students,” then it is easy to appreciate the point being made. While this has happened, UB is very successful in delivering programmes that were previously delivered by UCB, such as the sciences. I am not bashing UB: UB students and management knows what I am saying. In fact, my son, who is in second year at UB in Belmopan, is doing physics and math, and I am very impressed with the quality of the programmes. Training in technical and vocational careers is another matter.
 
It is my prediction that at the current pace, the agriculture programme at the campus in Central Farm will be closed soon. Applications have dropped from the 150 plus that applied in the mid to late 1990s, to less than 30 applicants now, and student numbers have dropped from intakes of 35-40 per year to less than 15 now. The time is approaching where the agriculture programme will have more lecturers than students.     
 
Ironically, a rapid assessment done by the College of Agriculture in 1995, estimated that over the period 1996 to 2000, Belize needed 24 agricultural technicians (Diploma or Associate Degree) and 6 professionals (B. Sc. or above) per year. The assessment also concluded that agriculture training must first serve the needs of Belize and that training in functional agriculture at the technician level is more important than offering Bachelor’s degrees. It was recommended that Belize therefore strengthen the Associate degree programme with a view to eventually adding the Bachelor’s degree when the demand approaches 15 graduates per year. In the meantime, Belize should continue to send an average of six (6) persons abroad each year to earn Bachelor’s degrees from regional institutions of excellence like UWI, Zamorano (Honduras), and Earth.
 
I am not an expert in the field of education, but it is my sixth sense that the time to act is now and hence the reason for writing on this matter. UB needs to be decisive about the future of its agriculture programme in Central Farm. There are options, but we cannot ponder too long on a decision. One of the options is for UB to provide some degree of internal autonomy and flexibility to the agriculture programme and stop trying to develop agriculture as an academic field. This option can include, amongst others, the establishment of a commercial farm operation that is managed separately but is integrated with the school academic and practical training programme. This farm operation can be established as a limited liability company that operates its own finances and UB focuses on developing the reporting and auditing systems for the company.
 
Lecturers need to be recognized equally on their practical and academic qualifications. Many agricultural lecturers may have only an Associate or Bachelor’s degree and must be considered on equal footing as those with Master’s and Doctorate degrees. These and other changes, such as greater integration with the Central Farm Research and Development Station, Caribbean Agriculture Research and Development Institute, the Taiwanese Mission, etc. can significantly improve the quality, attractiveness and effectiveness of the program.
 
If UB is unprepared to consider the option above or produce any workable solution of their own, then one of the practical remaining options is to hand in the towel and return the agriculture training programme and its facilities to the Ministry of Agriculture, who can begin to create a new institution with the help of the Research and Development staff of Central Farm and the Taiwanese Mission.
 
It would be sad, very sad, for the good work of former Principals such as Mr. Godsman Ellis, Mr. Alfonso Tzul, Dr. Marla Holder, Mr. Moises Cal and others to be destroyed by the highest institution of learning in Belize. It is like the US and Iraq. A mistake is a mistake, and the inability to solve a problem may need to be accepted at times. UB, please take off the traditional academic thinking cap and move decisively to preserve, in the words of Mr. Godsman Ellis: “Land and people – a country’s most valuable resource”.
 
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