Is Govt really serious about agriculture?
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Dear Editor,President David Granger, according to an October 12 Newsroom report, told an activity on the occasion of National Tree Planting day on October 11 that his Government would be “…using petroleum revenues to modernise the agriculture sector”. This is now the latest promise regarding the use of our finite oil proceeds towards national development. Apart from that undertaking, the President has promised free education from nursery to university. Also, his Finance Minister, according to an October 13, Demerara Waves report, said that “…the governing coalition’s general election campaign will not be pegged on the immediate benefits of oil money next year, but will list a number of tax concessions leading up to 2025 as more oil revenues pour in”. Of course, some monies, the Government has said, will have to be deposited into the Natural Resources Fund (NRF) for future generations. And then, soon, we may hear about other plans for oil monies such as infrastructure development. Bearing all that in mind, we wonder whether we are not being led into wonderland. It also brings into question the credibility and sincerity of the Government’s statements and how much weight could be put into believing what is being said.But on the issue of agriculture specifically, during the President’s time at the wicket, this important, mainstay sector of the economy has been badly mishandled and mismanaged. The functioning of the Ministry of Agriculture has been, in our view, far from stellar. Though now staffed by two (2) Ministers, one responsible for rural affairs and the other axiomatically having responsibility, probably, for urban agriculture, if this really exists, the sector has been facing the most trying of times. As we now observe Agriculture Month, the celebrations of this important month have, from our perspective, taken on more pageantry than substance though many issues require attention.In the more recent of times, we have seen the implementation of clearly unsuitable and ill-advised policies which have not been helpful to the sector and those who depend on it for a livelihood. Of course, it is not to say they have been repercussions, as we can see from the undermentioned table:- Source: Budget 2019We must point out that the 2019 figure was an estimate at the time of preparation of the Budget. Here we must note that the 2019 Mid-Year report indicated, not unexpectedly, that “[i]n the first half of 2019, the Agriculture, Fishing and Forestry sector is estimated to have contracted by 0.3 per cent, compared to growth of 4.9 per cent for the 2018 half-year”. It seems to us that the estimate will not be realised but time will ultimately tell.So now we have the President coming to tell us his Government will use oil revenues, among other things, to bolster the sector. This, given the importance of the sector, would be a welcome plus. But the reality is that the policies implemented by the Granger Administration during its stint in office, thus far, has served to weaken the sector and place it in the state it finds itself in nowadays. Can we really take at face value what the President is saying?From the report we saw, the President told his arranged audience “…notwithstanding the advances made over the past four years, [he] recognises the need to catalyse the agro-industrial sector”. What are these advances he is speaking of? In his tenure as President, the abovementioned data speaks for itself. Contrary to the President’s point-of-view, there has been retrogression not progression in the sector, like in other areas of national life.We need not remind about the destruction of the sugar industry, which has seen some 7000 workers put on the breadline as the Government adamantly pressed on, in a foolhardy manner, to shutter sugar estates. The repercussions have begun to show themselves. Already, the NIS is complaining about the loss of contributions and the exchange rate has slid markedly. Then there is the heartrending situation in the communities where many are experiencing the most difficult time of their lives. We have heard the stories of children not being able to go to school, or families not having sufficient food. Today, thousands are struggling while the fat cats sit in their ivory towers enjoying the fancifulness of life.We have also seen the incomprehensible hiking of land rental and drainage and irrigation charges. Those increases, according to reports, are several times more than what was previously charged. They are a major disincentive to production and whittle away the already small margins of our farmers. We have seen too, the attack on farmers through the arbitrary withdrawal of land leases. While we are also aware that the courts have brought justice to some of those affected, it is a costly and colossal waste of time. It, at the same time, takes away from those farmers, their attention in the tasks of tilling and cultivating the land.The President, according to the Ministry of the Presidency’s statement, is quoted to say “[a]gro-processing could add value to primary products and help to make the country more prosperous”. Indeed, it is hard to disagree with the President. But it is the same President, under whose leadership agricultural implements became taxable which has served to hike the cost of production. It is not a surprise, but saddening to know, that between December 2014 and June 2019, the cost of food has risen by nearly 19 per cent.So while the President rightly emphasises that agriculture can take us along the road to prosperity, his and his Government’s actions, in all fairness, have not demonstrated that commitment. We saw, in a report titled “Budget 2019: A disturbing trend and vision for Guyana’s future” produced by the Guyana Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI), that in the 2019 Budget “[f]unding for the agriculture sector was cut by more than 29 per cent…”. That report went on to point out that “[s]tarving agriculture of much-needed investment is an indication that the sector and the wellbeing of farmers are not a priority of the Government. This is in direct contrast to its multiple campaign promises of a better life for farmers and agriculture workers”.Today, according to the most recently available Bureau of Statistics Labour Survey report, employment in the sector has fallen from 18.9 per cent of the employed population at the last quarter of 2017 to 17.5 per cent during the last quarter of 2018. Notwithstanding the decline, the sector remains the country’s largest employer. Undoubtedly, focused attention is required to nurture and develop the industry. As the President correctly told his audience “[w]hen value is added to primary production, its export value is increased, exports are stimulated and foreign exchange and employment are generated”. But while the President is apparently not short on words, he is very much lacking in actions as we have seen with sad consequences.Yours faithfully,Seepaul NarineGeneral SecretaryGAWU Agriculture as % of GDP19.55%19.40%16.86%16.57%15.71%16.04% Year201420152016201720182019