Rice and sugar neglect

One of the largest millers and exporters of rice from Guyana, Alesie Rice Group, announced its decision to close operations here and place its extensive holdings on the market. Alesie was a Surinamese-origin player than helped to transform the sector more than two decades ago, when it exploited a loophole to ship rice tariff-free into Europe and doubled the price for paddy to local farmers. Farmers rushed back into rice cultivation and achieved the 600,000 tonne mark last year. In an industry where the vast majority of farms are below 10 acres  each, it provides employment and livelihoods to over 100,000 Guyanese. editorial
The announcement by the Chairman of the Group, Turhane Doerga, was as noteworthy for the reasons offered by him for the decision, as was the shock to an industry that is still reeling from the body blow of losing the extremely lucrative 200,000+ tonne Venezuelan market. Doerga, who had openly supported and campaigned for the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) at the last elections, declared his loss of confidence in the Agriculture Minister for failing to propose a “coherent set of policies” to turn around the industry and for the agriculture sector that was in overall free fall.
In consonance with revelations in other areas of the economy, he accused the Government of favouring one set of operators over others – presumably including his company – by giving them preferential treatment that created an uneven playing field. This State intervention to distort the free-market operations in the rice sector, if true, reveals a disturbing hypocritical stance since the Government has insisted as a private industry, the beleaguered farmers are “on their own”.
Doerga’s case may seem to be a matter of “sour grapes” but it does highlight that the Government is not even grasping at straws in the agriculture sector. Over a year and a half ago, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, followed by the Agriculture Minister, ostentatiously announced they had secured new markets in Mexico that would replace the lost Venezuelan deal. Events since then proved our position that these Ministers have no conception of the fundamentals of the world market in rice. This month, it was revealed that Guyana still has not complied with the phyto-sanitary stipulations demanded by Mexico, which receives most of its rice from next-door USA. There should have been a team assembled by the Agriculture Ministry with the securing of the Mexican market as its sole responsibility. As it is, the matter has drifted desultorily like a feather in the wind. Not that it would make a difference to rice farmers, who have taken huge loans to expand production which they cannot now service and will be thrown into bankruptcy.
But Doerga’s location of the abdication of the Government for the entire agriculture sector is very apropos especially in sugar, which is clearly is in death throes through the Government’s adamant refusal to heed the recommendations of its own Commission of Inquiry into the industry. There was no question that the APNU/AFC Government inherited a challenging situation in sugar and in fact before the elections, the leader of the People’s National Congress and APNU had announced the industry should be privatised forthwith. After its coalition with the AFC, it changed its tune but it is now clear this was just an opportunistic sop.
Wales was closed with no alternative employment prospects for the 1700 workers employed there and three other closures are pending. Two days ago, the Agriculture Minister, took the Ministers of Public Security and Telecommunications along with him to address irate Wales workers who demanded their severance pay. The Ministers’ lack of familiarity with the sugar industry was revealed when they insisted that demanding cane cutters transference to Uitvlugt was not inhuman. Even during slavery, this was never done.
It was not surprising the workers walked out on the Ministers, just as Alesie Rice Group gave up hoping the Government would get serious about the crisis in agriculture they are just exacerbating.