The opposition’s bid to have increases in land rent and other charges to farmers in the Mahaica, Mahaicony, Abary-Agricultural Development Authority (MMA-ADA) reversed was defeated on Monday when the government used its majority to vote down a motion moved by PPP/C’s Dharamkumar Seeraj in the National Assembly.
In his motion, which was vigorously supported by members of the PPP/C, Seeraj called for the administration to immediately reverse the increases of fees for land, drainage and other services for the farmers in the interest of the nation. To support this call Seeraj noted that the country’s economy is in no insignificant way based on contributions of the agriculture sector which sustains the entire Guyanese population and provides activities and jobs for thousands of households and communities. He pointed out that the increase in some of the charges is in excess of 600% which would see farmers in the rice industry, who in particular have been under “severe duress over the past year”, being “additionally hit.”
The farmers he said will now have to pay $15,000 per acre, an increase from $3,500 in 2016 for land rent and drainage and irrigation charges.
However, Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder in his support for the increase pointed out that the total drainage and irrigation and rental charges per acre in the MMA area range from $15,000 per annum ($1,250 per month) to $12,000 per annum ($1,000 per month) for rice lands; and between $9,400 per annum ($783 per month) and $6,400 per annum ($583 per month) for pasturage.
He argued that overall, the MMA-ADA at present supports nearly half of the national rice production, about 30-35% of all livestock (mostly cattle) production, and 10-15% of national sugar production.
“More particularly, the authority is responsible for the operation and maintenance of 784 miles of drainage and irrigation canals, 381 structures, including kokers, sluices, bridges, aqueducts and regulators, and four pump stations. A total of 169,878 acres are beneficially occupied for agricultural purposes,” the minister said.
For a decade, the minister said, farmers were required to pay $2,500 per acre annually ($208 per month) notwithstanding the increasing cost of materials and supplies in the provision for drainage and irrigation services by the MMA-ADA.
And despite such a low cost for land and drainage and irrigation services provided by the State, some sections of farmers were still not keeping their end of the agreement by not paying their lease rates as stipulated by the MMA-ADA Act, according to the minister.
“As such, this has hampered the authority from executing planned works outlined in its work programme with the most important being the completion of MMA Phases 2 and 3. In this year’s budget the MMA received $357 million from central government,” he said.
But arguing in support of his motion Seeraj stated that the entire sector was surprised and taken aback by the increases as the government knows the situation in the region where the famers produced 36,000 more tonnes of rice last year than the previous year yet raked in $29 million less. As such, he said, the farmers cannot comprehend the move by the administration, pointing out that the increase is not a small one. He expressed the hope that after the motion was debated the increases would be reversed since they are unpopular and do not make economic sense.
He also condemned a government minister, without naming the person, for visiting the area and telling farmers that the increase was the equivalent to a few beers. He described the statement, which was not rebutted by the government side, as “unpleasant and insensitive.”
A number of speakers, including Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo and former attorney-general Anil Nandlall, spoke on the motion. PPP/C’s Cornel Damon said he believed Holder was the worst Agriculture Minister in the history of the country. He was asked to withdraw the statement by Speaker Dr Barton Scotland and while he did, he rephrased it to say the minister is “building a reputation that nobody would like to hear.”
While Damon supported the call for the increases to be reversed Government MP Audwin Rutherford labelled the call as “backward” much to the annoyance of the opposition who attempted to drown him out in their call to have him withdraw the statement.
“His eyes pass people” one opposition MP said while another said, “The children are on this side and the men on that side.”
In the end while the opposition members argued valiantly it was the government side which had the final say and effectively killed the motion.