LETTER: Undeniable fact that coalition woefully neglected agriculture sector

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Dear Editor,

The Agriculture Minister, the Honourable Zulfikar Mustapha’s words will reverberate in the minds of Guyanese for a long time to come when he profoundly declared to the coalition in Parliament that sugar had “lost its taste” under the APNU/AFC Administration, but the “sweetness of sugar” will return under the PPP/C Government.

No doubt the coalition did everything in their power to make sugar bitter and unpalatable as the Minister reminded Khemraj Ramjattan of the ultimate insult he cast on the industry by scornfully referring to it as a “black hole” which was robbing the other sectors of financial resources. He even blamed the sugar industry for the wages and salaries woes of the public servants.

He unabashedly claimed that “cane sugar days are over and the rightsizing the coalition did was very much in order” but this was the same man who during the 2015 election campaign had promised the sugar workers 20 per cent wages increase and “vowed” to make sugar profitable again. What Ramjattan should have accepted is the fact that even the “right-sizing” was a miserable failure since the APNU/AFC never had the will to bring sugar back alive, they wanted it dead just to spite the sugar workers who are perceived as PPP/C supporters.

It is also evidenced that in his induced amnesiac state, Ramjattan did not mention the findings of the multimillion-dollar CoI which his Government had carried out which recommended no closure of any estate but a five-year plan to turnaround the industry. When the coalition spoke about “right-sizing” it was just a synonym for the closure of the entire industry so they began to create excuses for that.

This vindictiveness is still evidenced when Ramjattan claimed during his debate speech that the PPP/C Government’s aim is to “reward” its political base. This is a typical case of “mouth open, story jump out!” Imagine even after all the sufferings his Government cast upon the sugar workers, their families and the various communities, he is still bent on echoing the Congress Place narrative feigning absolute amnesia to even the rhetoric which Granger himself spun about Guyana being the “sugar bowl” of the Caribbean. The “right-sizing” had resulted in a rapid decline in the annual sugar production and the losses became bigger even though meagre targets were set.

The industry produced the lowest amount in 2019 since 1923 and according to Minister Mustapha, 2020 will be far worse. It would seem that the coalition has a penchant for breaking its own record when it comes to underachievement and incompetence.

The Minister also made a very profound statement when he said that GuySuCo is more than about the profitability of the estates, it must be considered “beyond the balance sheet” and must be seen as a “socio-economic entity”. He also provided vitally important reasons why any Government should ensure that sugar is kept alive quoting the example of the USA subsidising agriculture to the tune of billions annually. He stressed that monies allocated to GuySuCo must not be seen as “bailouts” but rather as a Government “taking care of the needs of the people”. No truer statement has ever been made and the Minister has made another indelible impression in the hearts of Guyanese.

Let Ramjattan digest these factual statements: the $30 billion “largesse” was meant to ensure that the fat cats are well-fed and the monies are squandered, filling the pockets of those in the SPU and by extension some in the Government. It must be painfully recalled that even though GuySuCo was given an average annual subsidy of $5 billion, all the estates were operational, foreign exchange in excess of $100 million US was garnered from exports, jobs were saved and workers were enjoying a reasonable standard of living, communities were thriving, and the US dollar was stabilised. In addition, there was little flooding, residents were getting assistance from GuySuCo, but today the resources-starved entity could hardly help itself. The CoI saw these benefits to the economy and advised against any closure! But how can we expect a man like Ramjattan to have this vision?

As with other ‘blood-sucking’ measures such as increased taxation and VAT which the coalition had used to erode the standard of living of Guyanese, Minister Mustapha made it pellucid that these “unconscionable measures” will be reversed not only by reopening three of the closed estates but will create a Wales Development Authority to work with former workers’ start-up agriculture value chains which will utilise agro-produce from the outlying areas to process them into value-added products. This will employ at least 3000 persons.

This is a visionary Minister thinking outside of the box with workable plans. Already the Rose Hall Estate has employed more than 400 dismissed sugar workers to resuscitate the estate and the same is being done at the other 2 estates. The PPP/C Government has allocated $5 billion for recapitalisation and operation of the estates. Imagine the financial strain and burden which the coalition has placed on the Government.

It’s ironical that the coalition had spent billions to close the estates and plunged the entire socio-economic strata of the country into Ramjattan’s “dark hole”. The former Finance Minister had said that the closed estates will not be “mothballed” but remain operational to attract “investors”. Well, most definitely he did not use mothballs but cannonballs since the current state of the closed estates will bear testimony to this.

The august Minister outlined the plans for GuySuCo for the next 5 years which will see the implementation of measures to promote a diversified agriculture-based economy; create more jobs and increase the income of farmers. He emphasised that this will be done by modernising and upgrading infrastructure, strengthening support services, robust marketing systems at local and international levels and increasing Guyana’s market share by tapping into the US$5 billion food import bill of the Caricom region. We have already seen that the relations between Guyana and the US are being greatly enhanced by the visit of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

It is an undeniable fact that the coalition had woefully neglected the agriculture sector as is evidenced by the volumes of irrefutable data which Minister Zulfikar dashed into the face of the APNU/AFC. Oil will be the panacea for all our social and economic ills, the coalition had reasoned, oblivious of the ‘oil curse’!

The coalition had been, for their entire term in office, piloting Guyana on the course of the oil curse which would have resulted by their wilful neglect and incompetence. Thankfully, this agriculture budget crafted and presented by the Minister will reverse this ‘oil curse’ route and bring back the sector to its former glory prior to the coalition unleashing its “weapon of mass destruction” on our beautiful country.

Yours sincerely,

Haseef Yusuf