We were the supposed location of Manoa, the City of Gold, where Walter Raleigh led an expedition in 1595 to find El Dorado (the Gilded One) who covered his body in gold. But it was not until the 1890s that gold was discovered and exploited in commercial quantities. From the 1620s, agriculture – primarily sugar but also cotton and coffee – was the raison d’être for our existence as colonies of first, the Dutch and then the British. As with most colonial powers, Guyana was a producer of primary products in agriculture; for instance, brown sugar. This was shipped to Britain where its refining into value-added white sugar helped kick off their Industrial Revolution. To this day, Guyana does not have a sugar refinery – epitomising our deliberate “underdevelopment”.
The production of sugar for consumption in Europe, however, created the first agri-business: large acreage dedicated to producing a crop with organised labour – first slave, then indentured – under a centrally-directed administration that also owned factories to process the product for export. Towards the end of the 19th century, Indian Indentured labourers – brought in to replace African slaves on the sugar plantations – introduced a second commercial crop – rice. With Independence, the PNC Government took control of the rice industry in the 1960s by mandating it purchase all production. It nationalised the sugar industry in 1976 after imposing a levy on all exports. These actions ruined both industries by the 1980s.
The return of a free market economy in 1989, via an IMF Structural Adjustment Program, allowed these two mainstays of the economy to readjust. But the long years of undercapitalisation of the sugar factories took their toll. Coupled with the loss of preferential European markets after 2006 and the failure of the Skeldon Modernisation Project, sugar continued its nosedive. The PNC’s 2015 unilateral decision to ignore its CoI’s recommendation to inject funds into the industry to bring it to a point of sale in three years and close four estates, was the death blow. The PPP Government that assumed office in August 2020 has done yeoman labour to salvage it, but sugar will never occupy the place it once did on the agricultural charts.
The Government has meanwhile taken the bold step to take the lead in Caricom to make the region self-sufficient in food by 2025. The global crisis in the food supply chain has finally convinced regional leaders that they must address their US$6 billion annual food import bill. This will be a Herculean task, but the Government has launched a plethora of initiatives funded by $95 billion in the last two years to achieve this goal. It hosted a Regional Agri-Investment Forum where four areas were identified for priority action: food insecurity, transportation, trade barriers, and women and youth in agriculture. This attracted regional and extra-regional interest not only in our primary production potential of soya, corn, and other crops in our intermediate savannahs, but also the vibrant local value-added agro-processing capabilities. The central thrust of the agricultural drive is to diversify production away from the colonial mono-crop model through greater use of innovations in the agricultural sector.
The war in Ukraine disrupted the supply of wheat – and as such flour – and this has spurred efforts to introduce new varieties that can be successfully cultivated under our tropical conditions. The first trials have been successful and all efforts will now be made to produce the grain commercially. The privately-run rice industry has been exporting around 600,000 tonnes of rice annually and the Government has challenged them to reach 800,000 tonnes by 2025. They have assured that higher-yielding and more climate-and-pest-resilient crop varieties will be supplied, along with the infrastructural D&I and farm-to-market roads.
Guyana always had the potential not only to be self-sufficient in beef and milk production, but to also supply the Region and new breeds are being introduced to realise this potential. The introduction of Black Belly Sheep from Barbados illustrates the drive for diversification in all facets of agriculture.
Forward to 21st Century Agriculture!!