The Ministers of Agriculture and Public Health are responsible for the loss of the fish export market to America. They are unequivocally guilty of dereliction of duty. The APNU+AFC officials destroyed the sugar industry leaving thousands unemployed and depriving Guyana of much-needed foreign currency. These officials weakened the rice industry. Now they threaten the fishing industry, leaving thousands of fishermen fearful of their and their families’ future.
There are already reports of fishermen putting away their boats since they are finding it difficult to make ends meet. The thriving fishing industry is now feeling the blight of the recklessness and incompetence of the APNU+AFC Ministers. Export of various fish species to America represents a major part of the fishing industry. Success of the fishing industry is unequivocally linked to export. With that market essentially shut down since February 2018, hard times have already descended on the industry. While successful, the fishing industry is not unlike sugar and rice. Even when both of these industries were doing well, most of the people who depended on them depend on weekly wages, living from payday-to- payday. Similarly, fishermen are generally people living from payday-to-payday. But, like sugar workers and rice farmers, the fishermen have been abandoned floating in dangerous waters by a reckless, incompetent and uncaring government.
The US Government banned export of Siluriformes fish and shrimp from Guyana into the US from February 3, 2018. The US demanded that regulations pertaining to fish inspection in Guyana must conform to inspections at US ports. The only response from the Guyana government is that this represents a “protectionist” policy of the US Government. I have not the slightest inclination to defend the US government. Yet the protectionist provisions of US trade policies are not new. Periodically new provisions are introduced and countries like Guyana find ways to overcome these unfair trade policies. On several occasions during my time as Minister of Health and Minister of Agriculture, we had to update our regulations, including inspection regulations, in order to maintain our fish export to America.
In this instance, America wanted us to ensure that there was a presence of inspectors, documentation detailing verification of each step in the sanitation and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) process and documentation specifying how the industry manages adulterated catfish products.
These are not new requirements for Guyana. To varying extent, Guyana has had to meet these standards in the past. Guyana’s inspection system has been designed to meet European Union (EU) standard. Previously, these standards were more onerous than the standards that America required. Guyana had updated our standards to meet the EU standards as part of the EPA (European Partnership Agreement). As our export partners expand and increase their trade requirements, Guyana has sought to meet them in order to maintain our markets. Even if the new standards were intended to be protectionist, clearly, the government of Guyana failed to respond to new demands from an important stakeholder.
These are doable things and Guyana has shown a capacity to meet such demands in the past. In this instance, the US Government gave Guyana notice since November 2015, more than 18 months before the provisions were to become effective, in May 2017. In fact, the US extended the deadline to February 3, 2018. We simply ignored the warnings from America. Now the fishermen and their families are collateral damage. As boats become idle and more Guyanese become unemployed, there is a deafening silence from the APNU+AFC dullards. The Ministers of Agriculture and Public Health are missing in action, AWOL, as usual. These two ministries have important roles in ensuring Guyana is export-ready for fish and fish products. In, fact, the new food bill that was passed by Guyana’s parliament in 2017 was intended to strengthen these regulations. Were these ministers even aware of the new policies or were they caught sleeping at the wheel again?
At no point did Guyana attempt to meet the conditions demanded by America. This is sheer recklessness. At no point did the Minister ever cautioned fishermen that there is an impending disaster and that they would not be able to export their catch. Such incompetence displays a reckless disregard for the welfare of the fishermen and their families and for Guyana’s trade earnings. The question then is who is right? Is the loss of the fish export to America because of protectionist policies of the US or is it the incompetence of the Guyana Government?
The Americans insist that the demands made were not intended for Guyanese fishermen, but for fishing industries in all countries exporting fish to America. They claimed that the policies that they warned countries about since November 2015 were intended for the protection of the world’s waterways and marine life. The Americans have advised that these regulations are within the capacities of countries like Guyana to meet and that the country has shown previously that it is capable to make adjustments. In fact, America appeared to have offered technical assistance to Guyana to meet the new regulations. Other countries did so and export of their fish to America has not been affected.
The Guyana government must act with alacrity to ensure that this glitch is temporary and that before long we would meet the new standards that America wants.
They are doable and do not require provisions that are too onerous. Let us remember the struggle of the rice farmers after May 2015 when APNU+AFC officials allowed Guyana to lose the Venezuela rice market. In that case, the rice industry struggled and has not fully recovered, If we cannot recover the American export market for our fish, it will prove disastrous for our fishermen and our economy. In a country where COIs have become the go-to response for government, a COI is necessary. The Ministers of Health and Agriculture are guilty of dereliction of duty.
Dr. Leslie Ramsammy
March 18, 2018