Essequibo rice farmers are sceptical that the second harvest will bode better than the first in relation to unresolved compensation and the investigating of why farmers received low prices for paddy.
The farmers say they are once again ready to take their frustrations to the streets if the GRDB, RPA and the Ministry of Agriculture do not provide answers and if some of the issues are not resolved by Friday. Stabroek News has been unable to obtain a response from these agencies despite efforts to do so.
Naitchram (only name) the Chairman of the Essequibo Paddy Farmers’ Association spoke with Stabroek News and revealed that to date farmers have not received compensation for being inadequately paid for paddy by millers since April. He said that “we started harvesting since last week and farmers still didn’t get this retro-pay that was promised.” He continued that farmers did not have faith that millers would respect the paddy prices during the second crop harvest.
He said that since the retroactive payment has been delayed and seemingly forgotten, if farmers brought the issue up again millers could claim that they did not have adequate financial means to pay for the previous crop and now for the second crop.
The EPFA Chairman said that “because we were short changed last crop, to-date nothing has happened and we have tried to speak with the Minister of Agriculture (Dr Leslie Ramsammy) since June and nothing has happened yet and we are already harvesting.”
Naitchram told Stabroek News that for the next few days they really wished for the GRDB and the RPA to help to facilitate a meeting with the minister to discuss the retro-payments and when it would happen. The EPFA Chairman stated that all the involved parties have until Friday to resolve some of the issues.
The EPFA Chairman stated that going into the second crop many farmers really wanted the Factory Act to be reviewed and for the agriculture ministry to work along with the Guyana Rice Development Board and the Rice Producers Association to really understand that farmers needed to be paid in a timely fashion in order to continue in the rice industry. He said that back in April when farmers took to the streets to protest the low payment for paddy, some farmers were receiving $500 per bag for grade A paddy when last year the same bag would get $4000.
Naitchram said that as the second crop harvest is fully underway, the GRDB has revealed that it was understaffed and could not have a representative stationed at all operational mills.
“When I spoke to a GRDB supervisor last Friday he told me that they are so short staffed they can’t have representatives at all the mill, but that was what was promised since the last crop,” he said.
The Chairman said that the ministry, GRDB and the RPA had assured that an investigative team would be dispersed to assess what needed to be done at the mills to ensure that farmers received the correct financial reimbursements for what grade of paddy they supplied.
The EPFA Chairman stated that “back in May they said they were going to do an investigation and see what millers were paying farmers and what needed to be done”. He added that the government had boasted that the GRDB would have more staff stationed at the mills to ensure famers were not ripped off. A team of experienced agriculturalists had been formed in May with Dr Dindial Permaul as head, and was charged with gathering information on if the current grading system was being adhered to at the mills along with a host of other information.
Since the formation of the team however there has been little information released and the EPFA Chairman noted that many farmers have also been kept out of the loop. He stated that when the investigation team had started work, two members of the EPFA were placed on the team, but when they attempted to ask questions they were told by GRDB and RPA representatives that they were only there in an observer capacity.
Naitchram stated, “They weren’t allowed to ask questions so it didn’t make no sense to stay, if we weren’t allowed to ask questions about the milling process.”
The ministry had repeatedly stated that millers lacked the financial means to pay on time due to the delay in the PetroCaribe barter deal signing and that the amount of paddy harvested had increased by over 10 percent while the amount of rice milled was up by 23 percent. The 2013 first crop harvest was well over 260,000 tonnes of rice, making it the largest harvest in years.
The EPFA Chairman said that prior to the rice being harvested for the second crop, farmers had wanted to get the results of the investigation to prevent the same anxieties faced during the first crop. He said, “You know people wanted and need their money from millers because they needed to buy fertilizer, feed their family and start the second crop, this should have been resolved before we start harvest again.”
Naitchram continued that during the April protests the GRDB, RPA and the ministry continuously made it seem like they were working to resolve these issues but four months later the second crop has begun to be harvested and yet the GRDB does not have enough staff to ensure that millers adhere to the paddy grading policy.
“We have made requests over and over to have an association representative at mills and the GRDB have to have theirs there too and this can work,” Naitchram stated. He said that farmers were trying to avoid being in a similar situation as the first crop where they were not even paid 50 percent of the money they were owed in the first two weeks by millers and to date, some were never compensated for the other 50 percent.
In mid-May, after the signing of the rice agreement portion of the PetroCaribe Agreement with Venezuela, Agriculture Minister Ramsammy had told Stabroek News that farmers would be receiving the first round of payments from the $2.5 billion government advance.