Is crisis looming for the Guyana/ T&T land for farming deal?

Up until a week ago, not a great deal had been heard in Guyana, nor, it seems, in Trinidad and Tobago about the bilateral agreement reached between the two governments that would see 10,000 acres of land in the first instance, and perhaps up to 100,000 acres in the longer term being allocated by Guyana to allow for T&T private sector investments in major farming projects in Guyana. This was supposed to be the first really significant undertaking arising out of the so-called Jagdeo Initiative designed to respond to the food security concerns in the region.

After T&T’s Food Production Minister Devant Maraj had visited Guyana late last year and met with various Guyanese officials including President Donald Ramotar and Agriculture Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy, we were told that a Memorandum of Understanding would be signed that would pave the way for the allocation of the lands here for the T&T-funded agricultural projects. Nothing more was heard about the project for several months, though this newspaper made attempts to secure updates from the local Ministry of Agriculture on the MOU.

The lull in the flow of information on the project ended suddenly with news that the MOU had been signed and, from Trinidad and Tobago, with the September 9 announcement by the country’s Finance Minister Larry Howai in his budget speech that the deal had been done and that there was now land in Guyana that was available to T&T investors for agricultural purposes.

Towards the end of last week, however, the ‘land for farming’ deal appeared to be threatening to go sour. T&T’s National Foodcrop Farmers’ Association (NFFA), which purportedly represents 19,000 of the country’s farmers erupted in a boisterous protestation that it had not been consulted on the Guyana land deal. Furthermore, the NFFA declared, such a deal was not a priority for the country’s agricultural sector. It went further, calling for the MOU to be torn up.

Another T&T farming organization, the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ASTT) dismissed the agreement as “not properly thought out.” The Society is contending that T&T has sufficient land of its own for farming and need not look to Guyana. Here we have two important T&T farming organizations bluntly declaring that they don’t think much of what, in the view of the Governments of Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, is an important bilateral food security agreement.

UWI agricultural economist Dr Sharon Hutchinson also hints at a lack of transparency in the procedures, drawing attention to the fact that the details of the MOU still remain a mystery to the various stakeholders in T&T.  In sum, the comments emanating from T&T add up to the conclusion that there was very little, (if any) local consultation on the matter, a circumstance which, it now appears, has caused the deal to attract a good deal of domestic opposition and may even have placed its future under threat.

All of this is embarrassing news for the Guyana government which would have been hoping for at least some early image-enhancing returns from the actualization of the first major project under the Jagdeo Initiative.  Now it seems that the T&T government may well have to deal with the NFFA’s promised farmers’ protests. At the very least the implementation of the project could face a considerable delay ‒ or worse.

The common thread that runs through the various concerns emanating from T&T has to do with what is felt to have been a lack of consultation on the part of the government. We in Guyana are familiar with that ‘disease.’ Over the months and up until what now appears to be the serious hurdle which the project has hit, little or nothing had been said here officially about the project. Indeed, even in recent days, Minister Ramsammy has assumed a posture of evasiveness with regard to full disclosure on the contents of the MOU.

It is worth mentioning too that for all their constant bellyaching about the need for transparency in the governance process and having regard to the particular significance of this project, neither the political opposition nor the private sector troubled themselves (or perhaps it simply slipped them) to insist that the MOU be ventilated in public before it became a done deal. Here is an example of an inattention to their watchdog role which is, to say the least, worrying.

Trinidad and Tobago, of course, is not Guyana, and that is precisely the point that the NFFA and the ASTT appear to be making.  Now that the rubber has well and truly hit the road and the T&T government understands that it cannot simply run the deal past the country’s farmers, one expects that the contents of the MOU will now have to be held up for full scrutiny in T&T. What this means, of course, is that even if the Government of Guyana  had decided to keep the details of the MOU quiet it will clearly have to think again about suppressing information that rightly belongs in the public domain.

This offshoot of the vaunted Jagdeo Initiative envisages the use of local lands and various forms of regional investment in the collective pursuit of regional food security. It is certainly strange to learn, after all these months and much to-ing and fro-ing by the two governments that some of the presumed key T&T stakeholders (the farmers) appear to have no immediate interest in the deal brokered by the two governments. It is a less than auspicious start for pursuit of the goal of regional food security.

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