Govt to engage Panama on outstanding $1.9B rice debts
The Guyana Government will soon facilitate talks with Panamanian authorities through the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation (IICA), in order to recover the $1.9 billion that has been owed to local rice millers since 2019.
Agriculture Minister, Zulfikar Mustapha told Guyana Times on Saturday that the Spanish-speaking country had previously committed to paying the money. There were also commitments to continue trade with Guyana.
However, efforts to engage Panama to release the money proved futile and Guyana approached IICA. The entity will now broker a meeting between the two Governments to find a way to settle the outstanding debts.
“They would have committed that they will pay the money. Also, they had asked to continue with the contract. Since then, to now, I was trying to make contact with the Minister of Agriculture for a meeting so that we can resolve the issue as early as possible. I was unable to so I asked IICA to see if their representative in Panama can help us to set up that meeting and IICA has agreed and they will be setting up that meeting shortly. I spoke to the IICA representative in Guyana and he told me that that meeting should be shortly and they’re now planning with the Ministry in Panama,” he informed.
The owed money is from a contract under the previous coalition Administration. The rice was shipped by the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB) on behalf of local millers who were required to pay an export commission.
When asked about the reason for such lengthy delay, he responded, “That contract was signed by the previous Government. I think they did not do anything. When we came into Government, then we sought to address the issues and that money was since 2019 and we got into Government last year. Close to a year, then the matter was raised by us and then we started to pursue the matter…Hopefully, the Minister and myself can meet and resolve this matter as early as possible.”
The Panama rice market was secured under then Agriculture Minister Leslie Ramsammy back in 2014. But under APNU/AFC, there have been controversies that featured the Panama market. One such controversy was in 2018 when a shipment of rice from Guyana was rejected on arrival in Panama since it did not meet the stipulated specification outlined by that country. Reports had indicated that the rice was of substandard quality, prompting the rejection. The ensuing debacle had led to calls for a comprehensive investigation and the resignation of the GRDB Board and then Agriculture Minister Noel Holder.
In a previous engagement with Minister Mustapha, he said the PPP/C Government took office and it found that no action had been taken by the previous coalition Administration to intervene on behalf of the farmers and millers to ensure that the outstanding payment was made. In spite of pleadings for help, the APNU/AFC Government had insisted that it was not responsible for farmers being owed by millers for rice that was shipped to Panama and had taken a backseat approach to the issue.
Meanwhile, Mustapha had highlighted that there were no clear-cut policies by the previous APNU/AFC Administration regarding agricultural development. He posited that the officers who are employed in the agriculture sector should not be blamed for the decay, but the politicians who were tasked with setting policies.
“Let me be very frank, the agriculture sector in our country was like a rudderless ship in water without a captain,” he was quoted as saying.