In the aftermath of a protest that landed 17 of their number before the court on Tuesday, Esse-quibo rice farmers were yesterday given an assurance by the government that outstanding paddy payments would be made by August 8th.
However, the rice farmers remain frustrated that they have once again been promised reforms of the the industry but with no comprehensive plan attached.
During a meeting with the farmers at the Hampton Court Primary School yesterday, during which President Donald Ramotar was also present, Agriculture Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy and Head of the Rice Producers Association (RPA) Dharamkumar Seeraj notified farmers that all outstanding payments would be made by August 8.
Farmers in attendance, around 80 in total, were left wondering how this promise was any different than in years past. Neither Ramsammy nor Seeraj volunteered what the consequences would be for millers who remained delinquent in payments.
With the second rice crop to commence in late July/early August, Esse-quibo farmers are annoyed that payments are still outstanding. Moreover, there is growing tension that bad news may be on the horizon with the projected paddy price per bag to drop by $500 to $2500. Farmers are stressing that the paddy production cost per bag is in excess of $2300. With the likely drop in the price, earnings will be significantly less and with the lengthy time millers take to pay, paddy farmers are worried their livelihoods are at stake more so than ever before.
It was these concerns that led to the protest two Fridays ago that culminated in the police firing teargas and allegations of police brutality. The Essequibo Coast area is a stronghold of the PPP/C government and the intensity of the protest would have taken it by surprise.
One farmer told Stabroek News yesterday that while the Minister, the RPA head and President Ramotar all took turns addressing the crowd, the presentations did little to highlight the plight of famers. Instead farmers complained that the addresses took on more political tones which made the gathering agitated that their issues were once again being sidelined.
Stabroek News understands that the revolving fund for rice farmers that was proposed by the ministry went no further than Ramsammy stating that it could be something for the future. Farmers told Stabroek News that the revolving fund would need to be established in conjunction with farmers, millers, the government and banks, however the ministry did not seem to actually be considering such an initiative as there was no specific mechanism discussed during the speeches.
One farmer said that “they are drafting, they are seeing if this can work… the money will have to come from the government initially, but they will see if this is something that is possible and who will be in charge of handing out the money.”
Head of the Essequibo Paddy Farmers Associa-tion, Naith Ram, who led the protest two Fridays ago, told Stabroek News yesterday that farmers were only given the chance to ask three questions prior to the meeting being dissolved. He said that one farmer made it pellucid that the protests on July 4 were not political and the real concern was that the farmers’ issues were not being taken seriously.
Ram told Stabroek News that during the addresses “they are just trying to water down the situation. Our expectation was they would come with more concrete resolution, they would make pressure on the millers. It was just all watered down. They came here to quiet down the situation and to build back the political support they have lost.”
Instead of addressing the late payments with concrete measures, farmers were told that millers had up to August 8th to pay outstanding debts. Ram told Stabroek News that the minister was cautious when he spoke about the August 8th deadline.
He said that what was explained was that millers would need to seek other markets and as a result the payments would be late in the future. Ram told Stabroek News “that is not our problem we are selling paddy and within 42 days we need to be paid or else it earns interest. That is not our concern when the miller moves it, we are selling by a time and a date and we should be paid.”
Bumper paddy crops in the last year have created pressure on the price that farmers are getting and finding new markets has been a big problem for millers. Venezuela’s barter market remains the biggest but finding other major openings has proven difficult.
Ram’s sentiments were echoed by other farmers who spoke with Stabroek News. They wanted realistic commitments from the RPA and the ministry that would reduce production costs prior to the first crop of 2015. As it stands, many farmers have stated that lags in payments from the first crop this year have impacted on their second crop plans.
In his address, Seeraj criticized the July 4 protest.
He said “the rice farmers should have gone and protest by the residence of the millers but instead they went on the Anna Regina High Bridge and nearly broke down the heritage site. Even if the farmers were subjected to some harassment, the matter could have been dealt with in a more appropriate manner. There is nothing wrong with protesting but once you maintain law and order and do not interfere with other people. Peaceful protesting means exactly that. Vendors from the market trying to get home on that Friday night couldn’t get home. School children could not get home. These were just ordinary people trying to go about their business. The protest wasn’t only rice farmers who were protesting but people were paid to go and make mischief. Drinking rum from since 12 in the day, putting tyres in their car trunks, the protest was premeditated.”
Seeraj said the farmers should be cognizant that “We have evaluated the cost and the price of rice on the world market and now we have to react to these prices. We are prepared to go the extra mile with you. We will overcome the hurdles. However, we have to view the rice industry as our main business. Our aim is to increase productivity, lower costs, get better prices, get better payment conditions in order to deal with the issues facing the rice industry.”
Arguing that the PPP/C government has invested large amounts in the industry, Ramsammy said the millers must find a way to pay the rice farmers who are owed monies from the last crop.
“We are not going into the next crop with any farmers who are still owed by millers. I made this clear to the millers when we held meetings across the country. In Essequibo, they reported to me that the millers agreed that by the past week a certain amount of money was going to be paid to farmers. I was told that the amount would come up to about $400M as part of the payment that was owed. I said to them that it’s unacceptable. We have to get more money. I immediately arranged a meeting with the millers in Georgetown. So while some people were misbehaving and protesting, meetings were being held and I instructed the millers to do everything possible to ensure that rice farmers are paid.”
Ram told Stabroek News that since charges were instituted against him and the other farmers on Tuesday they were all bonded to keep the peace. No further protests are planned in the near future but the main focus on their agenda now is to register the rice farmers group so that they can be more recognized.
“We will try to speak with all the rice farmers through a television programme informing them of our plans”, he said.