Hastening the Georgetown/ Port-of-Spain food security initiative
After the visit here in November by Trinidad and Tobago Food Production Minister Devant Maraj an announcement had been made to the effect that the governments of the two Caricom countries would sign a Memorandum of Understanding within a matter of days of the visit that would address the details of a collaborative food production initiative involving the two countries.
Public disclosure on the visit had first been made during the twin-island republic’s October budget presentation by the country’s Finance Minister and it is fair to say that it caught Guyanese off guard. What we were told by Trinidad and Tobago’s Finance Minister Larry Howai was that the arrangement would facilitate access to land in Guyana for investment in food production. Minister Maraj was also quoted in a section of the local media as saying that the agreement was part of an initiative launched in 2005 by the then president, Bharrat Jagdeo.
Assuming that the Guyana/Trinidad and Tobago initiative is in fact part of the so-called Jagdeo Initiative it is pertinent to wonder aloud as to why it took more than seven years for the first announcement to be made regarding any plan to kick start an intra-regional food security initiative.
It will be recalled that during the period between 2005 and the present time countless meetings and discourses on the issue of regional food security had been held at levels ranging from regional agriculture ministers and experts to heads of government themselves. At the end of that season of meetings there appeared to be no appetite for pressing ahead with the commitments given, despite the fact that the heads of government had acknowledged that the region could no longer afford a food import bill that had reached at least US$3 billion. It seemed that rather than press ahead with the collective approach to realising food security, which had been agreed at a Caricom level, the respective member states simply turned inwards and began pursuing modest projects of their own.
By the admission of the Trinidad and Tobago government, the rekindling of its interest in an arrangement with Guyana which, presumably, would realise investments by the oil-rich republic on agriculture, utilising lands in Guyana, has been triggered by a renewed sense of urgency about the need to reduce its spending on extra-regional food imports.
And yet, since the visit here by Minister Maraj and the announcement that a post-visit MOU is to be signed, we have heard nothing from the authorities here as to what the MOU is expected to realise. Will the projects, for example, allow for local private sector investment? Have we been able to overcome the hurdle of crop insurance? Can our own local small and medium-sized farmers benefit from the development of these mega farms? Perhaps, most importantly, are the requisite mechanisms – including the identification of the lands for the mega farms – been put in place.
If these may seem like mundane questions, it should be noted that progress towards regional food security, the commitments by Caricom governments notwithstanding, has been painfully slow. In fact, for all the deliberations that have taken place over the years we can point to no concrete measures that have been taken in the direction of a collective effort to increase our reliance on food produced in the region.
It would be ill-advised – to say the least to simply sit back and wait for Georgetown and Port of Spain to produce the promised MOU in their own sweet time given what we know about the track record of regional governments on the issue of food security. A month and more has elapsed since Minister Maraj visited Guyana and there should already have been some measure of serious follow-up to his visit. There is, it seems, no end to our dilatory disposition.