I take my hat off to Isabelle de Caires, a true daughter of David, on her piece in SN, Jan 9, entitled: ‘Are we all asleep at the wheel?’ I commend her nationalistic, non-racist, non-partisan commentary on this, which I consider to be the biggest economic development issue to confront Guyana ever since Columbus came and the colonial powers decided to make sugar king, thus determining the fate of every single human who drank black water from the backdam or Lamaha creek from then till now.
Some eighty per cent of the population will be adversely affected by the multiplier/domino effect. Ironically, those executives who executed this, along with the other twenty per cent, will be anointing themselves with oil and basking on the mudflats like the kings of sugar once did.
But serious questions arise. Are they pre-emptively pulling the plug? Are there proper arrangements for life hereafter? What do they plan to do with the widows and orphans? On top of it all, it seems like oil has made them mad ‒ bereft of economic and rational reasoning. Ms de Caires quotes Gordon K Lewis, historian and political scientist, who described Guyana as “a fascinating complex of strident paradoxes”, and who notes that “A weak state is no match for a robust multinational”.
Not only I, but Ms de Caires also seems to notice how APNU+AFC have from day one embarked on a self-destruct trip, weakening not only themselves, but also the entire state’s bargaining strength and sovereignty. Thus, when we were once (involuntarily) at the mercy of King Sugar and their ruthless manipulation of the terms of trade, we are now thrown at the mercy of Emperor Oil whose representative, Exxon, de Caires notes, “is a business with a current market capitalization of US$367 billion.” Ms de Caires alerts us to some frightening parallels between sugar and oil, and mentions many mistakes, direct and indirect, our governments past and present have made and are making, beginning with the signing over of 600 blocks instead of sixty. But I think the worst mistake is to abandon sugar without putting something in place to occupy the economic and social vacuum, while they recline and wait for petro-manna. They fail to realize that oil does not fill bellies; agriculture does. Ask the Iranians, Venezuelans and Nigerians.
Already our little tin gods have not only made a mockery of Professor Gordon Lewis and his wise exhortations, but also of another Lewis, Sir Arthur Lewis, who spent practically his whole life articulating models for developing countries, in particular, especially those that are predominantly agrarian and enjoy a comparative advantage in agriculture production.
For him, agriculture, along with agro-based industries, was the engine of growth that would transform over time the economic, industrial and institutional structure of an underdeveloped economy. For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Unfortunately, his expertise was not adequately utilized in the Caribbean. Today, the Caribbean, a place that has such great soil, and a population of about six million people, has a food import bill of $2 billion and more every year, and the demand for food will double in twenty-five years. What lesson is there for Guyana, the breadbasket of the Caribbean, to learn?
We already know about agriculture, and we have a natural comparative advantage in agriculture. I think, as we adopt the principle “every Guyanese should become oil conscious”, we should also learn and do more about food production.
One person who became famous for his involvement in the Green Revolution and food production is the scientist Norman Borlaug who developed a strain of wheat that could resist disease, was tropics-adapted, and could produce large seed heads and high yields. This strain of wheat was introduced in Mexico, India, Brazil and even several African countries. In and within twenty years the production of wheat in Mexico tripled to the point where it became a net exporter of wheat. In 1961, India, on the brink of mass famine invited Norman Borlaug to advise them on wheat production. Last year, India forecast the harvesting of 92 million tonnes of wheat.
Currently, Brazil produces over sixty percent of its wheat demand. In Africa, it is noted that wheat production is at only 10 to 25 per cent of its potential, but that African countries, spending $12B annually to import wheat, can easily grow more to limit hunger.
For his work in developing high-yield crops and for helping prevent starvation in many developing countries, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
I am not by any means suggesting that GuySuCo should plunge into wheat; only that, as a grain with a growing world demand, it is worth exploring. I believe that only adequate food makes us truly independent. Otherwise, “the mouth is muzzled by the [foreign] food it eats”. Do we want to enter into another dependency syndrome, replacing agriculture with oil? Is it, Goodbye Columbus, Welcome Exxon?
Rhetorically, I agree: We are asleep at the wheel.
Gokarran David Sukhdeo