Sugar was first cultivated in Guyana in the 1630s, and on a plantation scale, probably in the 1650s, that is, nearly 400 years ago. Apart from our Amerindian brothers and sisters, every ethnic group owes their presence in Guyana to a greater or lesser extent, to sugar. From all indications, after just under three years of the coalition government in office, large portions of a 400-year old industry will be closed by year end. Despite the fact that thousands of workers and their families will be put on the breadline and an even larger number, who are indirectly dependent on the industry, will be severely affected in an already depressed economic environment, the government remains unmoved. Dozens of continuing protest actions across the country, pleas from the labour movement and the political opposition have, thus far, yielded no positive response. Calls from the private sector, religious organisations and concerned groups of Guyanese, both in and out of Guyana, have gone unheeded.
The government is proceeding along this path with alarming rapidity and without resort to the types of consultations which are obviously required, having regard to the magnitude of the impact the diminution of this industry will have on the Guyanese economy. In fact, the government has obstinately refused to do any form of impact assessment in respect of the industry. A White Paper was laid by the government through the Minister of Agriculture in the National Assembly, but was never debated. An attempt by the opposition to move a motion in the National Assembly to discuss the impact that the closure of this industry will have on the nation, was denied by the Speaker. Earlier, a Commission of Inquiry established by the President to enquire into the industry, made a dossier of recommendations, none of which included the closure of any estate. From all appearances, these recommendations have been tossed aside.
All of this made sense when a document executed by the government dated 16th November 2016, was revealed which appointed and authorized a Guyanese residing in Florida, to sell off GuySuCo’s assets or any part thereof. This document clearly established that the government had already made a decision on the fate of sugar industry and therefore, all consultative engagements with stakeholders thereafter, conveying the impression that the government was soliciting an input and even the White Paper laid in the National Assembly, were all exercises in futility and farcical. That the sugar industry will be largely closed was already a fait accompli in the eyes of the government since November, 2016.
Though the sugar industry may be running at a loss, it still is, outside of central government, the largest employer of Guyanese; it still is a major contributor of foreign exchange to the Treasury and it still is a most significant contributor to our GDP. Its contribution to the maintenance and upkeep of the drainage and irrigation system, so essential to the low-lying coastal plain, where over 80 per cent of the population resides, is immeasurable. The other contributions which the industry makes to the provision of healthcare at estate hospitals, dispensaries and health centres, along with the recreational opportunities which these estates offer in the communities in which they operate, are impossible to quantify in monetary terms. In one fell swoop, the government is prepared to destroy them all.
Significantly, the government tells us that the industry cannot sustain a profit; that it is a noose around our necks; that it is a black hole into which we are pouring billions to no avail and that the Skeldon factory is a white elephant, an albatross and a “behemoth”. At the same time, the government is attempting to sell it on the international market, with the bizarre hope that some naïve buyer will purchase despite its own condemnation of it as an absolute catastrophe.
Recently, a special purpose company was established to privatize GuySuCo. So it appears that Mr Wesley Kirton from Florida has been unceremoniously fired. In fact, he has since come a full 360 degrees. Recently, a letter appeared under his name in the newspapers arguing that the sugar industry can become viable again ‒ what a tangled web we weave! Calvin Heath-London has been appointed to head this special purpose company. To many, he is an unknown. Information will soon be made public that will link him to an APNU+AFC campaign adviser from Jamaica. The picture will then become clearer.
While all of this is taking place, there is no plan, whatsoever, for the workers. No one is telling them about alternative employment, or, how they will put food on the table for their families and send their children to school. The workers who lost their jobs at Wales Estate have not even been paid their severance benefits, much less offered alternative employment, as promised. The private cane farmers at Wales who were told to continue planting with the promise that Uitvlugt Estate would purchase their canes, are now in even deeper financial crisis.
An all-weather dam which was supposed to be constructed to facilitate the transportation of canes from Wales to Uitvlugt, was never built. It is too expensive and not logistically possible to transport these canes by the main roadways. The canes are now rotting in the fields. These farmers have lost millions. They are now begging the government to help them clear the lands so that they can diversify to other crops. Even these pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
The closure of Wales Estate has catapulted the economy of West Bank of Demerara into severe depression. But our government is unaware of this. No minister, nor the President, has visited the communities since. Many of the affected persons are their own supporters. The poverty and its accompanying social ills which are wreaking havoc in the communities, do not discriminate on political grounds.
The consequences are going to be even more dire in Region Six, where is there is a far greater reliance and dependency on the sugar industry. In that region, the rice industry is in chaos and the trade between Nickerie and Crabwood Creek has virtually died since this government took office.
These factors combine to make the situation even more precarious. From all indications, the economy of Region Six would collapse if the sugar industry were to close. This collapse will enmesh the private sector, including the commercial banks, as there will simply be no purchasing power and ability to repay loans. Yet, in the face of this impending disaster, the government offers no alternative. It is as if they are blind to this forthcoming reality. I speak to tens of thousands of Berbicians, weekly, on a call-in television programme. The level of frustration in that region is high and rising to dangerous limits.
In these circumstances, statements like ‘it is not the government’s responsibility to create jobs’ and ‘go sell plantain chips, cook-up rice and sugar cakes’ will simply not cut it. Berbicians are no longer a docile people like their predecessors who endured institutionalized political/ethnic discrimination in the ʼ70s and ʼ80s at the hands of the state which manifested itself in a variety of ways. For example, there was the imposition of three toll booths on the major roadway in the Region and the failure to supply electricity and potable water to dozens of communities. From all indications, they are ready to take the streets ‒ men, women and children. Again, the government is oblivious to these realities because they are not on the ground and among the people. They are comfortably perched in air-conditioned offices on cushioned swivel chairs in Georgetown. The longest road trip for most of them is to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport where they jet off in the first-class cabins of aircraft to meetings and conferences at five star hotels which yield nothing beneficial to the population but cost them huge sums of their tax dollars, annually.
Mohabir Anil Nandlall, MP