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Land and People – A Country’s Most Valuable Resource

Posted: Saturday, August 22, 2020. 2:08 pm CST.

By Hugh O’Brien: The cold fronts had begun and it was through sheer discipline that students and teachers got up for breakfast at 5:30 am and report for field training at 6:30 am. 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 am 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 is during a regular cold front morning. The land was properly tilled and the students had prepared raised beds. Some 3,000 plus lush green tomato, cabbage and sweet pepper seedlings were ready to be transplanted. At around 7:00 am, 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 am 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 Masters 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 Masters and PhD colleagues often argued that with a Masters degree I should be doing a better job than ‘working in the fields’.

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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 3,000 plus 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 Dunker 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 (UB), is very theoretical and has little understanding of how to deliver practical training in technical and vocational careers. The mindset of the Lecturers and Professors is set 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 PhD, tell 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 the University College of Belize, such as business management. I am not bashing UB – UB students and management knows what I am saying. Training in technical and vocational careers is another matter. Ask those who were involved in the Bliss School of Nursing, Belize Teachers College and Belize Technical College.

A rapid assessment done by the Belize College of Agriculture in 1995, estimated that over the period 1996 to 2000 Belize needed 24 agricultural technicians (Diploma or Associates Degree) and 4-6 professionals (BSc 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 Bachelors degrees. It was recommended that Belize therefore strengthen the Associates Degree programme with a view to eventually add the Bachelors 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 Bachelors degrees from regional institutions of excellence like UWI, Zamorano and Earth. These numbers have changed over the years and will have to be updated by UB as they assess both their Associates and Bachelors degree programmes.

As we face the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it is creating for the food security and agricultural exports of our country, am hoping that UB will continue to work to improve the quality of not only its theoretical programme but also its practicals at its agriculture campus in Central Farm. Our highest institution of learning in Belize must continue to preserve and expand on the great work of former Principals such as Mr. Godsman Ellis, Mr. Alfonso Tzul, Dr. Marla Holder, Mr. Moises Cal and others. Let’s continue the mantra as coined by the late Godsman Ellis: “Land and People – A Country’s Most Valuable Resource”.


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