The discovery of offshore oil in Guyana has the potential to radically change the economic landscape – for better or for worse.
The expectations of many Guyanese, however, have already been shaped in the direction that there will be a windfall of new wealth sweeping the country, for the benefit of all and sundry. Businesses, small and large are jostling to position themselves to benefit, whether directly or indirectly, from the operation of the ExxonMobil Corporation in Guyana.
Our political leaders, also, are all looking eagerly in the direction of the income streams that should flow once oil production gets underway, and watchdog organisations are advising our leaders to show caution in their dealings with “Big Oil,” or “supermajors” – the names by which the world’s seven largest oil companies are known.
This leaves us to wonder at the direction our economic planners will take, firstly in defining the type of economy Guyana will have in the next decade, and secondly, in refining the existing economy so that it can resist any exogenous shocks arising out of its impending dramatic transformation.
In refining the existing economy, government may want to consider what role the agricultural sector would play, and the role of the government in the agricultural sector. For many years Guyana’s agricultural sector has been dominated in the first instance by sugar cane, an industry in the hands of the government-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo), and rice grown by private farmers which is milled by private millers and sold locally and overseas.
At the moment, both of these flagship agricultural commodities are struggling to be competitive in a globalised marketing environment, and the government-run sugar industry continues to experience severe financial difficulties caused by the disappearance of preferential markets and low prices on the world market.
With sugar in serious decline and rice also struggling to find export markets, what seems missing at this juncture is any comprehensive agricultural policy that addresses current constraints, and looks to encourage significant investments in the sector, given the large swathes of land and networks of rivers across this country signifying our rich agricultural potential.
In 2002, then President of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo made a proposal to the Caribbean Heads of Government Conference (CHOGC) refreshing the idea of a Common Agricultural Policy for the region. In 2004 he presented a paper to the CHOGC in Grenada entitled, ‘A Framework for Repositioning Caribbean Agriculture.’ In 2005, Guyana’s proposal was formalised and endorsed by the CHOGC as, ‘Strengthening Agriculture for Sustainable Development’ and dubbed the ‘Jagdeo Initiative.’
Not much has been heard of the Jagdeo Initiative since 2005, and in our October 23, 2011 edition of this paper, contributor Christopher Ram did a scathing review of the stalled Jagdeo Initiative, suggesting that sister Caricom countries Trinidad and Jamaica had moved forward with their own national initiatives in agriculture. There is, of course, one caveat, and that is the establishment of the Santa Fe mega farm in the Rupununi, a major investment by Barbadian Sir Kyffin Simpson. As yet, however, his example has not been followed by other investors from Barbados, or any other Caricom territory, for that matter.
In 2016, President David Granger, at the opening of two farm-to-market roads in Parika said that Guyana has the answer to the high food import bill of Caricom, touting our abundant land and supplies of freshwater. “I have invited regional leaders to invest in Guyana, including investing in Guyana’s vast agricultural potential. The countries of the Caribbean have the capital. We have the land and freshwater. There is no reason why we should not engage in a partnership aimed to increasing agricultural output to help achieve food security in the Caribbean,” the President said.
While President Granger’s words seem rational and sensible, they are yet to be encapsulated in a comprehensive national agricultural policy. Since uttering those words more than a year ago, neither the President nor his Minister of Agriculture, Mr Noel Holder, has put forward a comprehensive national plan for agriculture that local stakeholders can take their cue from. Beef and milk cattle production, poultry and egg production, cash crop farming, agro-processing – all have tremendous growth potential if the enabling environment for their growth and sustainability can be created.
Perhaps the weakness in the Jagdeo Initiative was that it did not have a national component and seemed entirely dependent on the actions of the other Caricom countries. Likewise, President Granger’s comment quoted above, taken by itself, might suggest that Guyana’s private sector does not have the capital required to make significant investments in agriculture, and thus only overseas investments can kick-start growth and the transformation of our agricultural sector.
But fast forward to August 2017 and we learn that a local company, Sterling Products Ltd has applied to the Government of Guyana for 10,000 acres of land as part of the diversification and expansion plans of its agro-processing business. The company’s Chief Executive, Mr Ramsay Ali has said that he believes the administration is looking “favourably” at his proposal.
As we wait to see the outcome of the company’s application for land for investment purposes, it should be iterated that it is high time the administration craft an ambitious and innovative agricultural policy and begin its implementation so that farmers and agro-business can start to see real sustainable growth in the sector.
Before the discovery of oil, Guyana’s agricultural sector had languished despite its stated potential, and now there is a great possibility that our preoccupation with establishing a viable oil and gas sector can give rise to further neglect of our agriculture, particularly as human and other resources exit the sector.
But there has possibly never been a better time for the agricultural sector in a country like Guyana. With the advancements that have been made in agricultural technology, many of the problems which traditionally plague the sector can now be ameliorated. Computer-aided Farm Management Systems can actually use information and mechanical technology in tandem to make farming a more successful and cost effective operation.
As with so much else, Guyana’s farming methods and infrastructure have not been upgraded in some areas as much as they could have been over the years. A thriving agricultural sector would be a boon to this country and an important failsafe as we prepare for a potentially volatile oil and gas sector.