Essequibo rice farmers are expressing concern after payments promised by the Agriculture Ministry to cover over $300 million in outstanding debts were made to some of them with post-dated cheques.
Several farmers protested outside Parliament yesterday as the national budget was being read.
Stabroek News was told by rice farmers that last week’s meeting with representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Guyana Rice Develop-ment Board (GRDB) and the Rice Producers Asso-ciation was to finalise a strategy to have rice farmers paid before the industry is once again flooded with paddy.
Stabroek News was told by Naichram (only name), Chairman of the Essequibo Paddy Farmers Association (EPFA), that roughly 80 farmers were owed anywhere from $200,000 to $5 million by various millers in the region.
He said the GRDB had paid some monies to millers and then arranged for cheques to be prepared for farmers immediately. Naichram stated that while the GRDB had prepared the cheques, the millers had prepared their own post-dated cheques and were not distributing the outstanding payments im-mediately as had been the understanding at Thursday’s meeting.
“On Thursday and Friday farmers were saying that the cheques were post-dated, the millers waited for everyone to leave before they started giving the post-dated cheques,” Naichram relayed. He said that about three quarters of farmers who were owed money were notified of impending payments and while not all were given post-dated cheques the fact that some were when the GRDB had handed over money to the various millers was alarming,
He said that, “we have never discussed with the ministry to have a payment plan to be given directly to farmers.” He said farmers understood that a middle man should provide a buffer. Naichram stated that post-dated cheques were ridiculous for money that had been outstanding already for months.
Naichram told Stabroek News that Thursday’s meeting came as a surprise and that farmers were not quite sure what would be the outcome. Another farmer told Stabroek News that he was owed money by millers but had not received his payment as yet. “I know a few farmers who get paid… We don’t know the system, but you supposed to go and they give you your cheque,” he said.
Members of the EPFA protested outside Parlia-ment yesterday. Members said farmers were told to take along photocopies of their post-dated cheques to show the agriculture minister. “If they doing this, saying they’re going to pay, they can’t do that…GRDB gave millers the money they just have to give us our money now,” this newspaper was told by an Essequibo farmer.
Members of the opposition met protesting Essequibo rice farmers outside Parliament yesterday. Leader of the APNU David Granger promised farmers that the opposition would look into legislation that would allow for the establishment of a fund that can be accessed by millers and farmers to ensure that timely payments are made.
He acknowledged that farmers have been complaining for years that millers consistently hold off payments to farmers and that as the industry was growing so should structural elements. He said farmers can no longer go from crop to crop with uncertainty about paddy prices and government had an obligation to help stabilise the process to benefit farmers’ livelihoods
Moses Nagamootoo of the Alliance for Change stated that a standing account with commercial banks could be established so farmers and millers can have access to loans to cushion during the off season and prior to rice shipments being exported to markets.
He highlighted that crop insurance needed to be addressed especially since the rice industry was booming; provisions had to be put in place to protect farmers during phases of droughts and paddy bug infestation.
Meanwhile, President of the RPA, Dharamkumar Seeraj, said that the agriculture ministry facilitated the GRDB with over $300 million that was given to millers to offset the outstanding payments for the first crop. He said rice farmers were owed since last crop and the payments were to commence immediately. He said that as far as he was aware the cheques prepared were not post-dated. He said that there were two millers in particular that were not paying farmers since the last crop and the GRDB through the ministry was giving the money to ensure payments were made.
He told Stabroek News that while the industry awaits the signing of the rice agreement with Venezuela there was currently in excess of 150,000 tonnes of rice and paddy in the system.
He said the first crop of 2014 was already coming in and being prepared for milling and as a result of only small shipments being sent to Haiti and Jamaica, the industry was experiencing a larger than usual backlog.
He said the Venezuelan agreement was set to be finalised by the end of this week, barring no further disruptions. He added that millers had to do their part to help the system flow.
Over a month ago, Guyana had just over 100,000 tonnes of rice and paddy in the system. This has risen by over 50 percent as the country awaits the signing of Guyana’s most lucrative rice market agreement with Venezuela which ensures that 200,000 tonnes are shipped annually.
Guyana recently signed a 50,000 tonne private deal with Haiti which will have up to 1,500 tonnes shipped weekly. The government is awaiting another 50,000 tonnes deal with Haiti. Guyana produced over 532,000 tonnes of rice in 2013, however there has been significant stress on rice farmers and millers as new markets have been hard to find. Farmers have been complaining that millers cannot move rice fast enough and are unable to pay for paddy immediately.