If there’s one thing that Budget 2018 seems to have overlooked, it’s the implementation of sustainable measures to revive Indigenous village economies which bore the brunt of the current economic stagnation that continues to stifle the country’s overall development since 2015.
While the previous two Arrows raised issues of substance abuse and public health deficiencies, including a chronic drug shortage in Region Nine (Upper Takutu-Upper Essequibo), today’s edition addresses the decimation of village economies in Amerindian communities in the Rupununi.
After traversing the region from North to South and discussing the socioeconomic setbacks which challenge the daily survival of Indigenous families, the one recurrent issue to which each community identified itself was the decline of their village economies. As villagers say, “money not circulating”.
Most Indigenous communities in the Rupununi depend on agriculture for their daily subsistence. Cassava, cattle ranching and fishing are some of the main investments generating income for families. However, cassava which has pillared village economies for decades now, is no longer feasible since there is now no market to absorb regional production.
The contractionary fiscal policies and austerity measures which included, inter alia, the removal of social welfare policies and State support for traditional income earning sectors, have, since 2015, muffled the homogenous economic growth across sectors in Guyana. Massive tax increases cobbled with thousands of job losses in both the Private and Public Sectors did little to reverse the economic recession which inevitably resulted from what can be described as gross incompetence and mismanagement of State resources. And while businesses continue to shut down and local investors migrate, consumer purchasing power is also under strain. The subsequent deterioration of local markets for agricultural products, including for cassava and its by-products, therefore comes as no surprise.
In Paipang, village leaders explained that the prices offered now for farine (a cassava by-product consumed throughout the Rupununi and in neighbouring Brazil) are so low that villagers are forced to go to Brazil in search of better markets. Karasabai villagers have also indicated that although Brazil remains an alternative, the demand has significantly decreased, leaving the village with a surplus. In Moco Moco, the farine surplus is over ten thousand (10,000) pounds, although the village is closer to both the Lethem township and Brazil (Bom Fim and Boa Vista). In Awarewanau, leaders expressed their frustration, stating that buyers impose extremely unethical prices as low as eighty dollars ($80) per pound of farine, slashing the standard one hundred and sixty dollars ($160) which would usually obtain.
According to narratives from several communities, the removal of the Youth Entrepreneurship and Apprenticeship Programme (YEAP) and its Community Support Officers (CSOs) is much regretted since beneficiaries would inject a minimum of two to three hundred thousand dollars ($200 000 – $300 000) monthly into village economies. The HEYS programme which the coalition Government promised would replace the YEAP, has not done so, and unlike its predecessor, is not a permanent initiative but lasts six months non-renewable.
Resource person and village elder from Nappi, Andrew Dimetro, reflecting on the present hardships of his people in the Rupununi, said he felt history is repeating itself as it reminds him of the Burnham era he was forced to live through. In 2014, a research conducted revealed that bartering in the Rupununi was no longer a common practice in Indigenous communities. However, village leaders from Kurumuta in the South Pakaraimas to Sand Creek in the Deep South Rupununi, indicated that bartering was reintroduced for the wrong reasons as a means to cope with the economic decline of village economies. When villagers cannot find buyers for their produce and by-products in Lethem, they are now forced to barter with shops in the town for basic commodities. Evidently, shops would exploit and undervalue Indigenous products and labour.
Life in the Rupununi has always been difficult for various reasons ranging from climatic to infrastructural challenges. However, the 2015 change in Government has axed development in Region Nine. The health sector has faltered tremendously, agriculture is no longer feasible, infrastructure continues to be a major hindrance to development and venues for seeking better opportunities are hardly in view. Migration of Indigenous peoples – especially youth – to Brazil is on the rise and understandably so.
Budget 2018 proposes no substantial sustainable remedies to uplift the increasingly vulnerable populations of the Rupununi, despite that Indigenous People’s Affairs Minister Sydney Allicock himself, is a Macushi man of Surama, and knows fully well the struggles of his own people.