By Shemuel Fanfair
The communities which stand to suffer from the imminent closure of the Wales Sugar Estate factory should be awarded subsidies on essential utilities such as electricity and water. This was the contention of residents in Patentia and Wales, West Bank Demerara (WBD) who vented their frustrations to Opposition Leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo on Wednesday.
The Opposition Leader visited the communities and held a meeting with villagers at Patentia in response to definitive moves made by the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) to shut down the Estate’s factory, premised on the boiling process being completed last Friday. Listening to residents’ concerns on Wednesday afternoon, Jagdeo heard of the impending hardships that various villagers will face after their livelihood is “taken away” by this month-end.
The residents pointed to long-standing State subsidies on electricity granted to residents in the mining town of Linden, noting that the same, in addition to water subsidies, should be awarded to WBD communities to offset expenses from January 2017. A male resident echoed the call, pointing out the difficulties that parents will face being without a job and still having to send their children to school.
“Can we fight for subsidy like Linden?” the man asked.
After the point was suggested, the Opposition Leader encouraged the gathering at “Big Bridge” Patentia Housing Scheme to have a petition signed by residents across the villages which stand to face the brunt of the closure. Jagdeo suggested that community and religious leaders should front the initiative, which would include all of the demands of residents. The gathering was told that the petition would then be submitted to Government with copies attached to the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) and other international donor agencies.
Meanwhile, the Opposition Leader also highlighted the benefits garnered from the sugar industry by way of the 1976 sugar levy.
“Sugar paid over US$250 million to the State in that period [1976-1996],” he pointed out.
He reasoned that from the positive net contribution sugar has made to Guyana, the country was able to subsidise bauxite.
“From the 1980s, we have been subsidising the bauxite industry…we [the People’s Progressive Party/Civic] worked to keep bauxite alive to get investors and we helped the community and continued the subsidy. In 1992, we got two per cent of the vote in Region 10 (Upper Demerara-Berbice) yet we kept the industry alive because Guyanese were employed there,” the Opposition Leader noted.
Drawing parallels to the current situation with sugar, Jagdeo opined that even though sugar remains a main source of earnings for many on the WBD, the current Administration still opted for the closure of the Wales Estate.
“Sugar in this area is the biggest source of income, yet this Government can callously decide to shut it down,” he expressed.
He further highlighted that while Government had noted that $1.7 billion would have been spent to keep Wales Estate open, “over $2 billion” is being spent on electricity subsidy in Region 10.
“There is no parity, no comparison because it is a political decision,” the Opposition Leader claimed.
Jagdeo further reminded that Government’s own Commission of Inquiry had recommended that there be no closure of Estates and he expressed that the Administration did not factor in the economic impact the closure would have on residents, farmers and business people.
Moreover, the residents who gathered also raised concerns over the implementation of the supposed conversion plans for Wales. One worker with 35 years of service questioned the rice and fish cultivation ventures, noting that no moves have been made on the latter.
Further, other residents refuted Agriculture Minister Noel Holder’s claims that rice would be ready for March next year. Some claimed that much land was prepared in the area, but in many instances, no rice was planted and weeds have reportedly taken over some of the plots. Another concern raised was the non-payment of the Annual Production Incentive (API) for 2016, which had been paid every year for 60 years, dating back to British colonial rule. Jagdeo highlighted that the API was paid throughout the years that former President Forbes Burnham ruled. The Opposition Leader opined that for sugar workers, this era is “worse” than the Burnham years.
It was last Friday that Agriculture Minister Holder claimed that the first crop of rice at the Wales Estate was expected by March 2017. Holder further said that rice cultivation had already started and it was the hope of management that the first crop would be reaped in a few months. In February, the Minister had told the National Assembly that the sugar factory would be converted into a business establishment that will see the rearing of poultry and livestock.
The closure of the factory has affected some 1700 workers directly and thousands of persons in the Wales and surrounding communities indirectly. The decision to close the entity was confirmed by Government in January 2016 after Guyana Times broke the news earlier that month. (Guyana Times)