Amidst sustained expressions of concern over the anticipated impact of the closure of several of GuySuCo’s sugar estates in Berbice, Business Minister Dominic Gaskin used the occasion of last Friday’s 2017 Berbice Expo and Trade Fair to seek to assure the region with the heaviest dependence on the sugar industry that the transition from the crop that has been at the heart of the Guyana economy will see the creation of new opportunities for the region.
Having now come to terms with the inevitability of the significant diversification from sugar and the consequential loss of jobs, government is seeking to allay fears of an apocalyptic economic outcome that will impact negatively on both businesses and income-earning households in Region Six. There is evidence, however, that allaying the deep-seated concerns amongst Berbician businessmen and residents whose livelihoods depend directly on sugar will be a difficult task.
When Stabroek Business travelled to Berbice just under a week ago to meet with Central Corentyne Chamber of Commerce President Mohamed Raffik and to ‘take the temperature’ in the business community regarding the likely fate of GuySuCo, the general preoccupation with what is now regarded as the imminent winding up of the sugar industry was evident. Berbice farmers with whom this newspaper spoke say they are already experiencing a loss of income arising out of what is believed to be a discernable shift in spending patterns among wage earners ahead of the anticipated closure of sugar estates.
As we reported over the past two weeks community interest is focused on the Berbice estates, including the reported interest of one of the region’s more prominent businesses houses, Nand Persaud and Company, in acquiring the Skeldon Estate. Here, the concern appears to be with whether or not the acquisition deal will fructify and whether plans for Skeldon beyond its divestment will embrace job retention or even a rise in employment levels.
The Central Corentyne Chamber President wants the issue of Berbice beyond sugar to become one for urgent national discourse that will lead to concrete plans focused on the creation of alternatives. His concerns revolve around the possible disfigurement that businesses in the community are likely to suffer as a result of the reduced patronage that will result from significant loss of jobs as well as the social consequences that could derive from high unemployment. It is almost impossible to shift the minds of the business community from these themes at this time.
If it is difficult to determine the extent to which his presentation at last Friday’s opening of the 2017 Berbice Expo and Trade Fair may have engendered an enhanced level of optimism, Gaskin used his address to seek to focus on two themes, first, the need for Berbice to bite the bullet in relation to the future of sugar and secondly for the community, businesses and paid labour, to buy into the focus of a plan beyond sugar.
In the former regard the Business Minister told his audience last Friday that while there are different views regarding the future of GuySuCo few people if any question the view that “GuySuCo in its current construct places a burden on the treasury that the country cannot afford. Some action has to be taken to bring an end to this huge annual subsidy that taxpayers are being asked to fund,” he said.
Whether or not his argument about the likelihood that more could have been done for Berbice if government did not have to bear the considerable cost of subsidizing the survival of the sugar industry over several years has secured much traction with Berbicians given the immediacy of the concerns associated with the loss of jobs and income and the overall economic impact of these on the community in the period ahead, is however, difficult to say.
Clearly focused on allaying fears in Berbice as the closure – or radical transformation – of GuySuCo draws closer, Gaskin told Berbicians that “government will not take action that will harm the economy of Region Six and cause suffering to the people of this region.” Arguing that “There has to be a transition (from sugar) if we are to reduce our dependence on an industry that is not producing, not performing and not delivering,” he promised a transition that will see “new opportunities… “and therefore need not be feared.”
Some of government’s thinking on the Berbice economy beyond sugar may well have been reflected in some of what Gaskin had to say last Friday. He appeared to be targeting Berbicians directly on the need to strike a transformational posture when contemplating an economic future beyond sugar by urging that we jump out of our “comfort zones.” He spoke to Berbice farmers, one of the groups that will be significantly affected once GuySuCo closes, alluding to the virtues of “innovation and the utilization of scientifically and technologically advanced methods of production in every sector…….. as part of our development strategy,” going forward. Here, Gaskin appeared to be pointing to the likelihood of an upgrading in the relationship between government and the agricultural sector in Berbice that could see new forms of technical collaboration and scientific support aimed at further enhancing the viability of the Region Six agricultural sector and its expansion to offer more investment and employment opportunities to Berbicians.
The concerns, however, remain palpable and even after Gaskin’s deliberate attempt to strike an upbeat posture of life after sugar, the Berbice business community appears to be willing the hastening of serious and structured talks with government to discuss the way forward. As far as the Central Corentyne Chamber President is concerned, the sooner, the better.