By Erica Williams and Kenesha Fraser
Protesting rice farmers last evening burnt tyres and set up blockages along the Essequibo Coast, after a confrontation with police escalated during an attempt to disperse them.
Chairman of the Essequibo Paddy Farmers Association Naith Ram and two other farmers afterward alleged that they were assaulted by the police near the Three Friends bridge.
“My pants was torn down. I was almost naked and all my privates were exposed. I have bruises on my buttocks, hands and other parts of my body,” Ram told Stabroek News last evening. The two other farmers allegedly attacked by the police, Ram said, have marks of violence on their bodies as a result.
Crime Chief Leslie James later said he was aware of the protest but noted that the alleged attacks on Ram and the other protesting farmers were not verified. “They are blocking a main access road, which should not happen, that is illegal,” he said.
James further stated that the police was there to maintain law and order. “And while I am not sure of the excessive force, I was made to understand that they were burning tyres and thus the police and the protestors are likely to have had some sort of interaction,” he explained, while adding that the police were working on getting the matter clarified.
Persons living in the area said the farmers used their tractors as road blocks and burnt tyres, creating huge fires and thick dark smoke that covered the area. The blockages also prevented the vehicles of the Regional Chairman and the Guyana Defence Force from traversing the roadway earlier on in the evening.
Up to press time last evening, Stabroek News was told that the farmers had decided to camp out on the road. “In all my 40 years living in this area, I never observe anything like this!” rice farmer Devika Persaud exclaimed.
Ram explained that earlier in the day, some 400 farmers came out to carry on a peaceful protest from Anna Regina to Three Friends in order to press demands for improved drainage and payment by rice millers.
Last week Friday, the farmers had protested and they said that no effort is being made by the government or the Region Two Administration to listen to their issues and concerns.
Yesterday, the agitated farmers staged a rally at Anna Regina High Bridge and a public address system was also used even though permission was not granted. On the bridge, they parked a tractor trailer and the car carrying the public address system. In the middle of the trailer, the farmers hung a dummy depicting their plight.
According to Ram, while the protestors were driving at about five miles per hour along the public road and occupying only one lane, they were approached by police officers who told them to park their vehicles.
He said that he instructed the farmers to continue driving since it is not illegal to drive slowly. At some point after, he added, a rice miller came out to witness the protest and then got into a confrontation with a farmer and threatened to shoot him. This threat, according to Ram, infuriated the farmers and they proceeded to climb on the top of the vehicle the miller travelled in. “They even attempted to upturn the vehicle with he and his family inside,” he admitted.
Ram said he was able to calm the angry farmers and the protest continued in a peaceful manner and the farmers traversed towards the Three Friends Bridge. On their way to the bridge, he recounted, they encountered police officers, who again attempted to bring the protest to a halt.
He said the Deputy Commander approached the protestors and asked that they remove their tractors from the roadways and the farmers insisted that they would continue their protest until they receive word from someone in authority; preferably, President Donald Ramotar.
In the midst of the exchanges between the farmers and the police officers, Ram alleges that the police officers started to grab and tug protestors and it was during this confrontation that he and two other men were cuffed and his clothes were ripped.
After the police allegedly used excessive force, Ram explained, protestors were angered and moved to burning tyres and setting up road blocks, while the lawmen ran away.
‘No one is here’
The farmers were accompanied by their wives. One angry woman said, “How we gon survive if they keep doing this? We gat bills to pay, children to send to school and food to buy. We are selling our rice to the millers and we are not getting paid. Four months pass and we can’t get pay. This is total nonsense!”
Ram said rice farmers are tired of the situation, especially when it involves prompt payments by millers to farmers, conditions of purchase of paddy and fair deals in weight, grades and non-payment of interest.
“I wrote a letter to the Minister of Agriculture asking for his presence at this protest and no one is here. I took a copy of the letter to the Chairman and I have not received any reply. If this government was a caring one, we would have seen someone coming to address the farmers but no one is here,” he lamented.
“Within two weeks to one month we should be paid what is rightly ours. As farmers we need to keep addressing this struggle. We have to take these protests further and before we leave here, we will make a decision as to what will be the next step,” he added.
When contacted by Stabroek News, Regional Chairman Parmanand Persaud said he did not attend the protest because no letter was sent to him. “I was not invited to the meeting. A letter was sent to this office, but it was addressed to the Minister of Agriculture. There were two meetings yesterday [Thursday] where I expressed my dissatisfaction about the non-payment by rice millers. Millers need to take into consideration the needs of farmers. While there is a law that was set up for the farmers, the farmers do not use it because they feel that the millers will victimise them,” he explained.
He added that the farmers should picket directly in front of the residences of the millers.
Meanwhile, Ram said officers from the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB) kept bottom house meetings without informing farmers.
Officials from GRDB along with the General Secretary of the Rice Producers Association (RPA) visited the Essequibo Coast on Thursday last and conducted two meetings at Golden Fleece and Better Success in an effort to address to the non-payment by millers.
At the meetings, millers who owed rice farmers promised to complete all payments by mid-August. General Manager of the GRDB Jagnarine Singh said the board is aware of the payment issues affecting rice farmers. He explained that when a farmer sells his paddy to a miller, they enter a contract and it is stated in the Rice Factory Act that the farmer should be paid within 42 days. If this is violated, the GRDB can intervene and legal action can be taken against miller, he said.
General Secretary of the RPA Dharamkumar Seeraj reiterated that it is the obligation of the rice millers to pay farmers and he added that the major stakeholders of the rice industry are working together to make sure that this is done.
Ram had stated earlier that rice farmers need answers and action not promises. He also said that the failure to have a government representative at the protest would result in farmers taking matters into their own hands, which according to him “could end in regrettable actions.”