Foot-dragging on regional food production

On Saturday last the Stabroek News published a story about a group of potential investors from Trinidad and Tobago who had come to Guyana to scout local lands suitable for large-scale farming initiatives. There is nothing new about the story. In fact, it is now more than a year old, the Memorandum of Understanding between Georgetown and Port-of-Spain that kick-started the initiative having been signed here in Georgetown late last year.

After that there was a hiatus of many months so that last Saturday’s media report would almost certainly have come as a surprise to some persons who have been following the progress of the initiative.

What this project seeks to accomplish has a broader regional significance since, in some respects, it is being seen as a template for much broader regional cooperation in agriculture that seeks to address the issues of reducing the current high extra-regional food import bill while doing more to ensure that the region takes advantage of an increasing global demand for food.

In the region, oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago stands out as one of the countries which not only has a significant extra-regional food import bill but also has the levels of investment capital to invest in the multi-million dollar mega farms.

Guyana, on the other hand, possesses the large land mass that can serve as suitable locations for such projects so that the two countries had come to be seen as ideal partners for such a venture.

Particularly in Trinidad and Tobago, there had been a less than warm response to the signing of the MOU particularly amongst farmers and farmers’ unions, their grouse being that there really was no need for T&T investors to go to Guyana to find land for large-scale farming. Here in Guyana there was some amount of muted grumbling by some farmers who felt that wealthy Trinis would be favoured above Guyanese for the allocation of prime farmland.

It appears that prior to last week’s visit here by the delegation of potential investors led by T&T’s Food Production Minister Devant Maraj (who had come to Guyana with the initial delegation last year) both governments had decided that in the face of what was – to say the least – a lukewarm response both here and in Port of Spain, the MOU would be ‘put on ice’ at least for a while, to allow for a ‘cooling period.’ It had suddenly become difficult to secure any further information on the project from either the Ministry of Agriculture here in Georgetown or the Ministry of Food Production in Port of Spain.

Last week’s visit, however, suggests, that a decision may now have been made to keep the project going. Though, based on the outcome of the recent visit, it appears that it may well languish on a slow burner for some while yet. We learnt from last Saturday’s Stabroek News report not only that “deals are not likely any time soon” but also (from Minister Ramsammy) that initiatives of this nature should be viewed from a longer-term perspective.

This, one suspects, is simply another way of saying that we can anticipate another extended hiatus before the Trini investors put in another appearance here.

Two points should be made at this juncture. The first is that we now face the serious risk of having this land-for-farming venture ‘go south’ – so to speak –since it is no secret that regional projects of this nature tend to emerge, get talked up for a while then disappear. The second point has to do with the fact that setting its substantive purpose aside, a project of this nature could prove to be a shot in the arm for local agriculture and the local economy as a whole given its potential to bring new, advanced farming techniques, additional research facilities and jobs for Guyanese.

Accordingly, we really need to be told much more about this venture beyond the current notification that we should not expect anything in a hurry.

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