By Wazir Mohamed
Wazir Mohamed spent the formative years of his life as a community and political worker, and is engaged in academic research to find answers to Guyana’s seemingly intractable ethnic dilemma. This is the last of a three part summary of a presentation made in November 2008 at the International Rice Conference organized by the Guyana Rice Development Board and the Ministry of Agriculture at the National Convention Centre, to mark the centenary of rice exportation from Guyana.
Previously we discussed the role of the colonial state in constructing the disparity in land ownership and wealth between East Indians and Africans in Guyana. Today we examine two factors which contributed to the gradual disappearance of the small rice farmer – one the attempt of the Burnham government to correct the historical disparity between African and East Indian ownership of land and their disparate involvement in the rice industry and two, the impact of globalization and liberalization.
There were 22, 156 rice farmers in 1955 and 45,000 in 1970. The 1955 total included only 900 large farmers cultivating plots in excess of sixteen (16) acres, while the majority was small farmers cultivating less than fifteen (15) acres each – approximately 15,000 cultivating two to eight acres each and approximately 5,000 cultivating less than two acres each. In the absence of any recent scientific study, most industry analysts agree that the demographic make-up of the industry has undergone and is undergoing rapid change. The number of small farmers has decreased, while the acreage under cultivation has increased. Most estimates put the number of farmers in the industry today at 8,000 to 10,000, a reduction of 35,000 since 1970. As early as 1999 Fazal Ally (late General Secretary of the Guyana Rice Producers Association), in a Guyana Review report, confirmed that by then the number of rice-farming families had declined to approximately 15,000 and that 70% of the approximately 200,000 acres under rice was under the control of “fewer than five large companies.” This was a telling statement that the nature and culture of the industry were going through rapid change. The figures show that from 1970 to 2000, while the number of farmers declined by 30,000, the acreage under cultivation had increased. Meanwhile the average farm size, which in the 1950s stood at around six acres, had increased to approximately 15 acres by 2000, by which time the trend of the previous 80 to 100 years, when small farmers proliferated, had been reversed. The industry was on track to becoming a large farmer industry, with the small farming families converted into farm workers. This trend has given rise to a migratory rural population and workforce. Small farmers are abandoning their lands to the large farmers and are migrating in search of incomes. These are not small changes: they reflect the changed conditions of the ordinary folk in the rural areas.
The drastic reduction in the number of farmers reflects the fact not only that Guyana is tied to the global economy, but that the global economy drives changes at the local and community levels. Dharamkumar Seeraj, General Secretary of the GRPA, in an interview with an OXFAM Canada team in 2001 reflected on the extent to which the global economy is wreaking havoc on rural life in Guyana and on the future of small rice farmers. He noted that with the impact of global change we are seeing “the break-up of farming families, because farmers have to leave home to go in search of employment.” “We see the migration of young potential farmers and qualified people.” He further noted that the break-up of the small farming culture affects not only the farmer, but the younger members within small farming households who make up the bulk of the rural population, “We see children called out of school because farming families can no longer afford the cost of transportation, uniforms, and school books. We see cases of suicide, farmers literally dying from the pressures of not being able to pay the banks – heart attacks on the increase, high blood pressure…there are fallouts at all levels.”
While globalization accelerated the process of the demise of the small farmer and of the small farming rural rice culture, these developments had begun in the 1970s. From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s rice farmers and millers were the target of state-sponsored repression. In this period of transition to globalization, the production, marketing, price, access, and availability of rice came under the control of political operatives who wreaked havoc over the right of farmers to their crops. This is partly reflected in the production figures which nosedived in the Burnham years. The statistics of that period speak for themselves. The acreage under production fell from 270,000 in 1970 to a low of 126,000 by 1990. This state of affairs was created by the insistence of the Burnham government on the need to de-emphasize the role and place of rice in the economy because as it was put, the PPP “had devoted so much of its resources to the rice farmers, who were mainly its East Indian supporters.”
To address the historical imbalance between Africans and East Indians in the industry created by the colonial state at the end of the 19th century, to use the words of former finance minister Carl Greenidge, the Burnham government “tried to de-emphasize rice in favor of other agriculture and industrialization to which its own, predominantly urban supporters were attracted.” Within the political lens of the government, the historical economic imbalance in the country between the two major ethnic groups had to be addressed through the implementation of institutional policies to curb the influence of East Indians over the decision making apparatus of the industry. Within the framework of this ideology, it re-organized the management apparatus of the industry and derailed the democratization mechanisms that were installed in the late 1940s and the early 1950s that cemented farmer participation in the decision making bodies.
With Burnham’s death in the mid-1980s, the new PNC regime headed by Desmond Hoyte implemented measures to reverse the undemocratic trend of the Burnham regime and openly embraced neo-liberal economics and politics under the rubric of the “Economic Recovery Program” begun in 1989. This opened the floodgates to the market economy, and dismantled the framework of the rice industry that had been organized around small farmers. This is reflected in the reduced number of rice farmers today, and the consolidation of land and resources in fewer hands.
Globalization is reshaping the nature of occupation and ownership of land. Land is being consolidated into larger and larger blocks. Many small land-holders in the rice producing areas have either abandoned, sold, or rented their lands to larger farmers. Rural life is being reshaped. As this reshaping evolves, the court system is constantly called into action to deal with litigation.
While detailed field research is required to sort through the levels of dislocation in the industry, one thing is certain – the small rice farmer is one of the victims of globalization. Replacement of the small farmer, a process many authors call “depeasantization” is an unintended consequence of globalization. This trend is very pronounced in neighboring Brazil, where 75% of all arable land is now owned by no more than 3% of land owners. Guyana seems destined to move in this direction.