Economic migrants from the South American mainland may not be the only illegal entries breaching the borders of Trinidad and Tobago in recent times. Unwanted bugs and pests, agricultural products from countries not authorized to do so and other illegal substances such as drugs can now be added to that list. In short, the unit is the first line of defense in pest surveillance and diseases by the issuance of permits and the inspection of cargo at our nation’s ports of entry.
Those were some of the concerns voiced by at least six plant quarantine guards who have been ordered to sit in a room at Centeno Research Division since March 2020. They said that they have been told by their superiors that the decision had been taken because of the emergence of Covid-19. However, they noted from the start of Covid-19 until the present, food and other agricultural imports have continued in the country as usual.
The main spokesperson for the guards said, “Although we have been receiving our monthly salary, the work we have been appointed to perform according to the Plant Quarantine Regulations/Act is not being done since the five agricultural assistants recently hired to do so are inexperienced, and in any case, five persons cannot be expected to man all the ports of entry effectively.” The spokesperson also told PSA Media that there are presently 12 plant quarantine guards who have been working since 2016 but until Covid-19 have now been relegated to do absolutely nothing besides data entry work which is not under their job specifications. They also questioned the decision to have five assistants do the same job that they had been doing while blaming Covid-19 for their detention at Centeno Research Division.
In speaking with PSA Media this week, the guards who preferred to remain nameless noted that while all ports of entry require their specialized skills, they singled out two ports that were of major concern. The Piarco International Airport and the port at Cedros. They said that the Piarco International Airport is a 24-hour job where plant and food imports come in at any given hour through passengers and cargo and there were also imports during the period when the country’s borders were closed. “The office at the airport where plant quarantine guards worked had been closed since that period of the border closure in March 2020.” They added since the reopening of the borders(airport) someone will work there only between 8am to 4pm but there would be no one after that time and during the weekends.
With regards to the Cedros port, they said that it had been seeing increased activities from as far back as 2016 and has been increasing ever since. They noted that there is hardly anyone there to oversee what is being brought into the country and noted that major vegetables, citrus, and livestock are being brought in from South America, which are countries that Trinidad and Tobago does not import those products from, since they do not meet the trade requirements. They said: “That is something that must concern the agricultural society as well as consumers in this country because a lot of the produce being sold on the local market is coming through that Cedros port and proper inspection is not being done since customs and excise officers are not taking up the responsibility and have pointed out that they will not do the job that plant quarantine guards should be doing.” In any case, they added, “Customs are not trained to look for what we look for.” One of the guards also noted that the previous management team wanted to place guards permanently at the Cedros port although it is not an official port of entry.
The spokesperson also pointed out that the fruit flies in Venezuela are also a serious risk to this country. “But when you look at all these cheap citrus selling right now on the streets of Trinidad, the majority of it is coming from South America.”
“When you see people in this country start to get sick from consuming lava and other things that are not supposed to enter our country because things lay eggs in it and it is not being inspected and it is being put on the shelves for the public to purchase and they or their children get sick and their family gets sick then that is when the Minister will realize how serious it is what they have allowed to happen with plant quarantine.” Another guard pitched in.
Apart from the Piarco International Airport and the Cedros port the guards also noted that the Queen’s Wharf in Port-of-Spain is also a major entry point where various unwanted pests such as sweet potato weevil, mealybugs, fruit flies, red palm mites, and the giant African snails are looked out for. The goods from the Queen’s Wharf come in from other Caribbean countries. The guards also pointed out that some of these invasive pests can destroy the country’s agricultural industry and flora and fauna.
While speaking to a more senior person at the Centeno research centre, he gave another reason that the technocrats have given for the guards not to perform their duties. He said, “An online system is being used to clear containers presently. Once the paperwork is uploaded then the container is released for clearing. However, the senior personnel indicated that while the online system has its efficiency it is limited and cannot inspect the goods physically.
The guards have noted to PSA Media that they would like to return to their duty to secure the borders of Trinidad and Tobago.
In speaking with Susan Shurland, Acting Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture she said that the matter is currently before the Chief Personnel Officer and noted that it was all that she is willing to say on the matter at present.