|Bayelsa Palm Estate. Photo: Sam Oyadongha.|
THE Bayelsa State Government-owned Elebele Lowland Palm Estate, located at the borders of Yenagoa, the state capital, is lying idle despite the colossal amount of money pumped into it by successive state governments.
Investigation by Niger Delta Voice showed that the expansive project, described as the key to the future economy of the state given the unpredictability of crude oil price in the world market, has remained undeveloped over the years.
Though successive administrations in the state had spent huge sums of money on the plantation with a view to making it a profitable enterprise, it is still lying comatose.
As part of the government’s efforts to diversify its revenue, the administration of Chief Timipre Sylva had secured the approval of the state House of Assembly for virement of N850 million for the state Ministry of Agriculture.
Of the amount, N300 million was for the expansion of the dying oil palm estate, while the balance N550 million was for the ministry to complete the initial down payment and execution of the Green House Project.
Several months after a committee instituted by the present administration of Governor Seriake Dickson to assess the state of the affairs at the Bayelsa Oil Palm Company submitted its report, nothing also seems to be happening.
Poachers, weeds take over
When Niger Delta Voice visited the sprawling estate, it was discovered that it had been taken over by weeds, while poachers from the adjoining communities were tampering with its products because of its porous boundaries.
Also, some herdsmen have turned the expansive land to grazing field for their cattle.
Sadly, the palm estate, which is equipped with a modern processing mill and has the potential of taking off the streets hundreds of jobless youths, is still struggling to find its bearing several years after.
Workers blast govt
However, some workers, who spoke to Niger Delta Voice, blamed the sorry state of affairs at the oil palm estate on the government, saying such outfits were best managed by the private sector.
One of the workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Aside Dr. Edwin Dandeson-Spiff, the former Commissioner for Agriculture during the Alamieyeseigha administration, who made conscious effort to revitalize the estate before his exit from office, others who came after could not sustain the programme.”
He said though the then commissioner had planned to expand the plantation from 1,083 hectares to 29,000 in phases, “the local population from whom the land was acquired were still laying claim to the land and this stalled the plan to make Bayelsa the largest palm oil producing state in the country.”
According to him, “the place is not functioning the way it ought to be. Instead of sustaining itself, we are still relying on government for subvention. The best bet is to privatize the place.
“Government has no business in such enterprise. Most of those appointed to oversee the affairs of the outfit are more interested in what they stand to gain and not the growth of the place.”
We need core investor—Dickson
However, Governor Dickson, in an in interview, reiterated his administration’s preparedness to diversify the state’s economy through agriculture. He said plans were afoot to turn around the fortunes of the firm.
His words: “I am passionate about the diversification of the economy beyond oil and gas. Clearly, investing in agriculture is priority to me, which naturally means that our government is interested in an asset that we already have. But we have got to get the fundamentals right.
“You need a core investor to come in and inject some more funds so that the place can be made more profitable.
“I am in the process of talking to a number of them. Some have come to look at the palm plantation. The best model for an asset like that is not government total ownership and control.
“We will not get anything out of it because right now what they are producing is about 10 percent, while 90 per cent is pilfered.
“So it is about this culture of corruption that we have taken for granted as a norm in this state.
“If you put N3 billion to N5 billion into that place, the only thing is that one or two people will smile to the banks and then you will not see anything. That is not the dream we have for the plantation.
“The plan we have is for us to get the right investor, who will come in with funds and skills and undertake the management of the place so that our people can be carried along.
We can be like Malaysia
“We have acquired land to give to a serious investor to develop the palm plantation and other ones.
“If Malaysia can make palm oil and its derivatives the cornerstone of their economy, then I do not see why we cannot do same. That is the real investment and life after oil.
“That is why we are working on the airport because when investment in agriculture matures, products will have to be evacuated. So we are looking at export.”