Rice board shake-up imminent over diverted PetroCaribe funds

GRDB General Manager Jagnarine Singh

Minister of State Joseph Harmon yesterday announced that the government is moving to shake up the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB), which he said would have seen PetroCaribe funds being diverted, now forcing the government to find US$15 million to pay farmers for the next shipment of rice.

He also said that neither of the two agencies affiliated with the rice industry—the GRDB or the Guyana Rice Producers Association—will be getting their hands on the money, but rather a mechanism would be formulated under the Ministry of Finance for the famers to be paid and for the money to be utilised.

“Cabinet was of the view that [given] the additional sums of money we have to be paying on the shipment of rice to Venezuela… we should apply a formula as we did for sugar, which means we will not be putting the monies into the hands of the people who have been there and diverting it into all different types of projects,” Harmon said at his weekly post-cabinet press briefing yesterday.

Jagnarine Singh
Jagnarine Singh

Stabroek News attempted to get a comment from GRDB head Jagnarine Singh who answered his cellular phone and indicated that he was in a meeting and should be called later. All other calls to his number went unanswered.

Singh was reported as saying in the Guyana Times that he was prepared to resign if asked to and Harmon yesterday said the government has seen these public statements and “we will accept his resignation and wish him well.”

Cabinet on Tuesday was also briefed on the composition of the GRDB and the actual management of the rice sector.

“The industry already has too much at stake… We have to provide this country with careful explanations as to how we deal with the patrimony of the state; how we manage the affairs of the state. I don’t believe we can give any proper explanation to the Guyanese people if we were just to continue pumping money into the hands of people who have been spending it without giving any proper explanation,” Harmon said.

He said the intention was to “get rid of this one and put a new one… We have to get a board that reflects our perception as to what is credible, what is transparent and what is in the best interest of the sector.” Asked for clarity on whether GRDB had any connection with the projects that fell under the PetroCaribe fund, Harmon said Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo would have clearly said that monies from the fund were spent on the Hope Canal and other projects. He said the GRDB as the entity that would have had supervision would have “had to be complicit in the funds being diverted….”

Harmon said had the money not been diverted then the administration would not have been in the “hole that we find ourselves in right now of having to find money from the public purse to pay farmers who have been working hard in the fields and have done honest work…”

Meantime, Harmon announced that Minister of Finance Winston Jordan would be leading a team, which would include strong representation from the rice sector, to Venezuela early next week for PetroCaribe negotiations to extend the present arrangement which comes to an end in October.

Harmon said the market for Guyana’s rice is a major issue with Venezuela taking up about 76% of the rice that Guyana exports, which is the reason a strengthened team would be travelling to the country.

When asked, Harmon said it would be difficult to replenish the fund but the money that was spent would be a separate subject of inquiry.

Earlier this month, Harmon had announced that the administration found that the fund was empty. “We actually will have to find somewhere in the vicinity of US$15 million to basically pay our farmers when they ship the next set of rice to Venezuela,” he said.

Under the PetroCaribe agreement, beneficiary nations can tap concessionary oil imports and source funding for long-term loans from a development fund created from delayed payments for oil. Barter arrangements are also possible as is the case with Guyana’s rice.

Harmon had said that the previous government spent more than what was actually pumped into the fund. He said when Minister Jordan said the government found the “cupboard bare” when it took office, it was not the end of the story.

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