By Kenesha Fraser
A meeting yesterday at the Anna Regina Town Hall, between Essequibo rice farmers and Minister of Agriculture, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, ended with the still disgruntled farmers who had requested the meeting, accusing the government of not keeping promises made and favouring a failing sugar industry.
Over the past two weeks, the Essequibo Paddy Farmers Association staged two protests in an attempt to highlight the plight of rice farmers in the county and in an effort to have farmers’ challenges addressed by either President Donald Ramotar or Ramsammy. Their wish was granted and three meetings were held at various locations along the coast yesterday.
Addressing the farmers, Minister Ramsammy said that the rice industry is an important one for the country and especially Essequibo. He pointed out that the Guyana rice industry can compete with any other country in both quality and price.
“Last year, Guyana exported 535,000 tonnes of rice, while in 2008, 196,000 tonnes were exported,” he stated. “This is not the time for us to make the scale go down. We know that the farmers are not being paid by the millers and we the government intervened. For the last crop, some $300 million is still owed by millers in the entire country; $170 million in Essequibo.”
The minister added that the intervention by government is to ensure that all farmers are paid in full for the last crop by today (Friday).
“The government is not in a position to order farmers what to accept and millers what to pay. We are urging the millers to reconsider what they are currently offering to the farmers,” he said. “Some millers have already responded and I’m told that Ramlakhan revised his price from $3,500 to $3,700 per bag.”
The audience was told by the minister that the transactions between the millers and farmers are private and the millers cannot be ordered to pay a certain amount.
He also said that a technical team would be formed to meet periodically and assess the rice industry and to look into the future.
The Guyana Rice Develop-ment Board was also asked to ensure it did “a 100 per cent audit” of the mills and enforce the necessary adjustments. One rice farmer said that the government is not granting the satisfaction that is needed by rice farmers.
“Eighty-five percent of the people living on the Essequibo Coast depend on rice farming. We must do this to survive. Since we getting all these problems with the millers, all we hearing is a Santa Claus story from the government,” the farmer said. “Every day is All Fools’ Day fuh we. Sheer promises we hearing and we nat seeing any action. That’s why we gat to get a answer in this room here today. Every year the government pouring money into a failing industry called GuySuCo and the rice industry that progressing nah getting nothing. Give we one year of the money that them getting and you gon see how we gon progress.”
Chairman of the Essequibo Paddy Farmers Association Naith Ram said that if the farmers did not protest, their voices would have never been heard.
“You all come here to fool us again, but you see if we ain’t get paid by tomorrow [Friday], we going to Parliament and then straight to the Venezuela Embassy,” Ram said. “Promises are only for fools. We are saying that a special fund should be set up where millers can borrow money to pay farmers on time. All of you at the head table there bread well-buttered and plus it get cheese on it, but we is poor rice farmers here.”
Loud applause followed Ram’s comments.
Ram also noted the need for duty-free fuel since he said that rice farmers should be treated the same way as gold miners.
Responding to the farmers’ comments and recommendations, Minister Ramsammy said that all the suggestions are valid, but there is also another side to it.
“I hear you all and I wish I could put all these things in place but there has to be a balance. The truth has to be confronted. We have to sit down rationally and come up with answers and that is what I’m seeking to do,” he said.
General Manager of the Guyana Rice Development Board Jagnarine Singh was also present at the meeting along with Minister within the Ministry of Agriculture, Ali Baksh.