Agricultural planning

Guyana’s agriculture sector has not shown any significant growth overall, or in its major subsectors for more than a decade. There has been a great lull in agriculture since the heady days of the 1990s rice industry ‘boom’ which spawned several rice milling and exporting companies, which in turn created an increased demand for farmers’ paddy, causing an exponential growth in the banking, agricultural equipment and supplies sectors.

Despite some ventures into non-traditional efforts such as tilapia farming, the industry has been lacking any noticeable fillip and seems to require a strong investment shot-in-the-arm. With the rapid contraction of the sugar industry and the laying off of over 4,000 workers in field and factory, the Guyana agriculture sector could be said to be showing an overall declining trend.

In a country blessed with thousands of acres of farmable lands and verdant savannahs the only explanation for a poorly constituted agricultural sector must be that the political overseers over the years have lacked the vision and drive required to propel development of the sector, nor have they considered it necessary to play a role in facilitating modernisation in the sector. Indeed, at the height of the successful run of the rice industry in the late 1990s, there were still some farmers drying their paddy on the side of roads as proper drying facilities, such as drying floors or mechanical dryers, were in short supply. Indeed, nearly two decades later, there is still a dearth of drying facilities for farmers’ paddy.

In the absence of a carefully developed and comprehensive agricultural policy there has always seemed to be willingness to hype any entrepreneurial effort in the agricultural sector as proof of growth or innovation in the sector, but this kind of ad hoc approach to the possible expansion of the sector is erratic at best and difficult to sustain. Development which happens within the construct of an existing plan is usually more manageable, measureable and beneficial for all stakeholders.

Recently, it has become public knowledge that the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission (GLSC) has approved some 5,000 acres of land, located in the Intermediate Savannahs of Region 10, to the Caribbean Agricultural Research Deve-lopment Institute (CARDI), for the setting up of a mega-farm project which will grow rice, corn and other crops as input for a major stock feeds factory in the same location. Commissioner of the GLSC, Mr Trevor Benn has advised that CARDI’s long term proposal is for a total of 15,000 acres with the current 5,000 acres meeting its short-term needs. CARDI’s chief representative in Guyana, Dr Cyril Roberts has promised to make public a detailed release on the project in less than two weeks’ time.

The issue of Guyana’s potential for facilitating mega farm projects is not a new one, and even this arrangement with CARDI has been under discussion some years now. There are benefits that can derive for Guyana if such farms are successfully launched based on a strategic conceptualisation that considers all the major positive and negative consequences of such large-scale projects. The principal question that must be answered in all this would be how Guyana benefits from such projects, in terms of direct and indirect benefits.

A critical expectation of all major commercial investments in Guyana is that such investments will play a part in employing and fostering skills training of Guyanese on the one hand and the employment of available skilled and qualified Guyanese as well. Too often the case is made that resident Guyanese do not possess the necessary skills and qualifications to benefit from employment when large commercial investments are made. Even if this is true, then it behoves the Government of Guyana to address this issue frontally and from a strategic point of view with investors and other stakeholders, so as to reverse this trend in the shortest time frame possible.

However, over the years Guyana has not been highly ranked as an investment destination (although this may now change in the context of the ExxonMobil oil find), and consequently our lack of negotiation strength when seeking investments usually results in concessions being given to foreign investors that are never made available to our own local investors. This unequal treatment and lack of a level playing field is the direct result of the absence of an up-to-date, practical (as opposed to being purely theoretical) and therefore sensibly drafted and courageous Investment Strategy designed to benefit all of Guyana, on mostly economic terms, without any pandering to our political dichotomy.

The investment negotiating machinery of Guyana must therefore be systematically strengthened over time, compassing changes in the political administration, and more importantly, surviving such changes, and becoming a system which values technical competence and professionalism above political affiliation.

In the meantime, probably wellintentioned projects such as the CARDI mega farm and stockfeeds factory, despite having survived a change in the political administration of the country, are being proposed without sufficient transparency from the administration, even as we await the clarifying announcement on the full nature and extent of the project.

What we do know, subject to the expected clarifications, is that CARDI appears responsible for acquiring financing for the venture, and that the stockfeed produced will have a primary market in Guyana initially, expanded later on to include other Caricom countries, particularly Trinidad and Tobago. What impact this project will have on the local market, and whether it can drive an increase in poultry and livestock production remains to be seen, in the absence of any published data analysis and economic justification.

The agriculture sector in Guyana badly needs commitment to planning and strategizing on the macro and micro levels, together with bi-partisan agreement in the National Assembly, as unlikely and unachievable as that sounds in the Guyana context.

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