Rice farmers in Region Five were assured that government would do all it can to ensure that Mahaicony Rice Limited (MRL) honours its commitment to pay and would start an independent audit on Monday.
At a meeting with farmers at the Bush Lot Secondary School on Tuesday, Minister of Agriculture, Robert Persaud said government has hired a private auditor, Desmond Mohamed to “check the books” of MRL to ascertain the amount owed to each farmer.
The decision for the audit was taken following discussions with the owner of the MRL, Jai Beni and his banker, Demerara Bank Limited. According to the minister, the company had asked for additional time for the audit but “time has run out…”
At the moment arrangements are being put in place by MRL to settle outstanding payments in Region Six. Minister Persaud said he contacted the banker via telephone recently and was assured that they would be looking at dealing with Region Five.
He said though that he has heard that assurance before and would not believe it until he sees the results. In the meantime, government is exploring what additional steps can be taken to help farmers.
So far, it has come up with the idea of delaying the payment of outstanding arrears owed to the Mahaica-Mahaicony-Abary/ Agricultural Development Authority (MMA/ADA).
The farmers would also enjoy an extended time to pay for seed paddy.
The minister said his ministry, the Rice Producers Association (RPA) and the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB) had insisted on meeting with Beni and the banker which was held recently.
At that meeting, he said they had “made it quite clear how very displeased we were that he (Beni) had not honoured his commitment.”
Beni, he said, felt government was trying to get him out of industry but he mentioned to him that “once any player in the industry is willing to abide by the rules and treat the farmers and all stakeholders in a very respectable way, government has no problem with that.”
Minister Persaud pointed out that government would offer full support to farmers who wish to proceed with legal actions.
Further, he said if the MRL does not demonstrate how it intends to deal with the outstanding debt in a given time frame, government would go for a “class action suit by all the small farmers.”
He pointed out that government would “pay the legal bills and then move against the assets of the company in a law-abiding way.” He hopes that the court deals with the matter expeditiously.
He said though that his concern was not for the assets to be seized but for the farmers to be paid.
One farmer who was present at the meeting said he is owed $70M. There were also other farmers in the region who are owed varying sums.
Persaud told them that he understands the agony and difficulties they were facing, knowing that they too have debts to pay.
General Secretary of the RPA, Dharamkumar Seeraj told the farmers that apart from the lack of payment, the industry was seeing some progress.
He mentioned that some farmers including one from Bush Lot have already started to export to the Venezuelan market.
Meanwhile, a farmer complained about the condition of a section of the Onverwagt dam and was afraid that when the rainy season comes on they would not be able to access their rice fields.
In response, General Manager of the MMA/ADA, Aubrey Charles said that they had done some critical dams for farmers to harvest their paddy but they were not in a position to fix that section for this year.
Minister Persaud however ordered that an evaluation be done on the dam and said it would have to be fixed once it is in a critical state.
Also present at the meeting was General Manager of the GRDB, Jagnarine Singh and Chairman of Region Five, Harrinarine Baldeo.