As has been pointed out in our lead story on government’s proposals for the agricultural sector in 2019, there appears to be a deliberate effort to send a message in the 2019 budget proposals that approaching ‘first oil’ will not have the effect of placing agriculture, a sector that has, historically, served the nation well, on the back burner. That, of course, is an official promise which the country, at least, should have every interest in keeping even though there is precedent of countries marginalizing agriculture in favour of a new found extractive sector, oil particularly.
In our instance, of course, it is a matter of good sense. After all, we have templates from which to learn in the examples of those countries that neglected agriculture to their detriment. These days, too, there is simply too much information available on issues such as food security and global food shortages for us to be so short-sighted. Right here in the Caribbean, there are glaring examples of countries sidelining agriculture in favour of spending on food imports, a posture which, even now, is, in some glaring instances, coming back to haunt them.
So that the proposed investments in the rice and fisheries sectors, for example and the proposed investments in science and technology, data collection and other forms of institutional strengthening associated with consolidating the agricultural sector are all in keeping with what would appear to be a policy to persist with the tried and proven even in the face of the advent of the new and exciting.
That being said there is little doubt that the Local Content spinoff from the oil and gas sector will doubtless create new career opportunities that could see a drafting of labour away from the agricultural sector even though the patently obvious nexus between oil exploitation pursuits and the need for an agricultural sector that can meet hopefully most of the food needs of the oil workers will serve as a sufficient incentive for private investors already embedded in the sector to stay put.
The Finance Minister’s budgetary proposals for agriculture cover a bewildering array of areas ranging from the consolidation of hinterland agriculture and agro processing and providing funding support for the small business sector to significant investments in infrastructure associated with the rice sector, for example the strengthening of support infrastructure provided through institutions like the Guyana National Bureau of Standards and the Guyana School of Agriculture. All of this, one would imagine, has been documented and delivered with a sense of earnestness and with an understanding of the importance of providing those critical support pillars that will keep the agriculture sector standing strong.
One makes this comment out of an abundance of knowledge and bearing in mind the precedent of budgeted commitments either falling short in their realization or simply not ever seeing the light of day. This might occur for reasons ranging from a lack of capacity in the execution phase to a change of strategy upon deeper contemplation.
There is another point to be made here. A number of the commitments made in the budget in areas such as agriculture and agro processing have derived from engagements between the public and private sectors, some of which have involved the Finance Minister himself. These include what, by the Guyana Manufacturing & Services Association’s admission were useful and constructive engagements with high-level government officials including direct consultations on this year’s budget. Against this backdrop it is not unreasonable to assume that this year’s budget proposals, particularly those that had to do with a predominantly private sector-driven agricultural and agro-processing sector has been, in some measure, the product of consultations between the public and private sectors.
It means that, going forward, every effort should be made to ensure the full and effective implementation of those proposals that have to do with strengthening the country’s agricultural and agro processing sectors. In this regard undertakings like those that have to do with the strengthening of the infrastructure to support the country’s rice industry and the provision of facilities to consolidate the agro processing sector, particularly in the hinterland communities, must be implemented. It really is a question of putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle where the pieces that have to do with the creation of a stronger agricultural/agro processing sector are critical to the creation of a cohesive whole. The challenge here is in ensuring that none of the pieces are left lying to one side.