Ramjattan proposes revolving fund for rice farmers

-as opposition urges comprehensive plan for industry

AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan is proposing that a revolving fund be created for rice farmers in Region Two so as to ensure they are not kept waiting for their money from rice millers in the future.

The proposal came during Thursday’s sitting of the National Assembly and stems from the continued cries of Region Two farmers who say millers in the region continue to pay them late for their produce. The late payments were one of the reasons for the protest in the region last Friday, during which rice farmers were allegedly abused by police officers and several tractors were impounded.

A total of 19 persons were charged after protestors blocked the road and refused requests bypolice to disperse.

Naith Ram, an AFC Councilor and President of the Essequibo Paddy Farmer’s Association told Stabroek News that he and two other farmers were assaulted by the police during a confrontation. He claimed that his “pants were torn down. I was almost naked and all my privates were exposed. I have bruises on by buttocks, and other parts of my body.”

The police force says permission was given to the Essequibo Paddy Farmers’ Association to hold the protest march and a meeting after at the Anna Regina High Bridge. It noted that the protest march, which had about 200 participants, was peaceful and by the conclusion of the meeting around 12.30pm, most of the persons left.

However, the force says some persons remained and began drinking and later in the afternoon, around 5.15pm, those who were drinking and others that included Ram, boarded their vehicles, including tractors and trailers, and proceeded to drive at a very slow rate along the middle of the main roadway in the vicinity of the villages of Reliance and Land of Plenty, Essequibo Coast. It was stated that this action resulted in a backup of traffic as other motor vehicles could not pass, and the protestors continued their action despite efforts by police ranks to get them to drive on the left hand side of the road. The force said efforts by ranks to get the vehicles removed from the roadway were met with bottle, bricks and other articles being hurled at them by the crowd.

Before the altercation came to an end police resorted to the use of tear gas and 19 persons who were participating in the demonstration were arrested. They have since been charged.

Ramjattan told the National Assembly on Thursday that the protest action would not have occurred if farmers, who were not paid on time despite their numerous complaints and the numerous efforts of the National Assembly had not been treated the way they were. He particularly lamented the alleged stripping of Ram, at which point Peoples Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) MP Neil Kumar shouted to Ramjattan that those who were stripped did so themselves because they were drunk. At one point Kumar even suggested that Ramjattan provided the alcohol.

Kumar shouted this remark, as well as several others like it several times before Ramjattan came to the end of his presentation. In closing his presentation, Ramjattan told the National Assembly that all charges brought against the farmers for their actions should be dropped, and he added the tractors and trailers which were impounded should be released into to custody of their owners.

Also, to ensure that farmers, some on which are reportedly owed millions, Ramjattan proposed the setting up a revolving fund to facilitate the payment of rice farmers for their next crop, and the crops to follow.

At an AFC press conference yesterday, MP Moses Nagamootoo said the protest was not meant to cause any disruption but to highlight the concerns of the farmers who were being ignored. “The AFC wishes to say very clearly that we do not want to politicise the livelihood of farmers but we support their cause for fair play, that when they sell their produce they must be paid. That’s what the government is there for, to protect the producers and also to ensure that here is market for the produce,” he said.

Harper asserted that the issue must be viewed from a holistic perspective, she said “Paddy farmers in Essequibo are equivalent to the sugar farmers in Berbice and the bauxite workers in Linden.” She explained that the money made by these farmers is circulated within the local economy, “they are the lifeblood of Essequibo, so when they don’t get their money it is like blocking a main artery.” According to her, this is not a new experience for the country, or the Guyanese economy she said, “We have seen what happened to linden when bauxite production went down. We don’t want a repetition of that. Something must urgently be done to ensure that we have markets for the produce.”

Commenting on the future of the rice industry, Ram, who was also present, noted that there is currently a huge surplus of paddy left in the system from the previous crop. “This is causing a glut and the present crop is heading towards a disaster,” he said, estimating that over 115,000 tonnes of paddy remains in the silos from the last crop. He believes that this will negatively influence the price for the new crop as there will be more supply than demand, which has the potential to disrupt the lives of all rice farmers and their families. “We are the single largest private sector business in Guyana and demand government’s help for full payments and guaranteed market at fair prices,” he said.

Comprehensive plan

Meanwhile, main opposition APNU yesterday said in light of the protests, stakeholders should be consulted and a comprehensive plan on bettering the rice industry drafted even if it done through a commission of inquiry .

“APNU has received numerous complaints from paddy farmers. These complaints indicate that there are sufficient grounds for the PPP/C Administration to convene a Commission of inquiry into the impediments to the efficient management of the industry and to make recommendations for the improvement of the livelihood of the nation’s paddy farmers,” APNU leader David Granger said yesterday at a news conference.

An official coalition statement said APNU was alarmed at the spate of the protests in the rice industry, while noting that the protest last Friday was the fifth such protest by paddy farmers this year.

It noted that the issue of payment problems had been highlighted in the National Assembly last year, when protesting paddy farmers had previously converged on the precincts of the Public Buildings to meet APNU and AFC parliamentarians. According to APNU, the protestors delivered a petition of over 1,000 signatures to the Minister of Agriculture, requesting him to ensure prompt payments are made for their paddy. However to date the same problem recurs and it is evident that much is not being done for the sector.

The coalition laid the blame on the ruling administration, saying that it exercises control of the industry through the ministry of Agriculture, the Guyana Rice Development Board and the Guyana Rice Producers Association. “It must therefore bear full responsibility for the current and chronic chaos affecting it,” APNU said.

APNU believes that while much income is generated through Guyana and Venezuela’s Petro Caribe agreement, it has fuelled increasing production of the product that can leave farmers with surpluses of rice and which can see them losing in the end. This reality coupled with the fact that rice is a competitive global commodity, with many countries trading in the grain, APNU said it is time for Guyana to seek out new markets both regionally and internationally.

Meanwhile, Region Two resident and Leader of the Rice Producers Association Action Committee, Jinnah Rahman told the press conference that he and many farmers countrywide were fed up with the way the farmers were treated by the ruling administration. He said that he was not afraid to speak out for reform in the sector as complaints over the years have been ignored.

He pointed to a document which his organisation has drafted demanding a sustainable rice industry.

In the document, the group calls for the establishment of an Intervention Fund to protect and secure the livelihood of all rice farmers. It also demands the immediate reestablishment of the Guyana Agriculture and Development Bank which, should have industry professionals sitting on the board as directors. This demand stems from the view that current interest rates at commercial banks were too high and with a development bank farmers will be able to establish small percentage interest rates.

The document also calls for the urgent replacement of current Minister of Agriculture Dr. Leslie Ramsammy and says that it was time he stopped using millers as scapegoats for the mismanagement of the sector.