OPINION: Another Court battle looms to rescue the hapless rice farmers of Region 5

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(The following is an opinion piece written by Mr. Anil Nandlall, a former Attorney General of Guyana)

The struggles of the sugar workers since May 2015, are well documented. Rice farmers have not fared much better. From the inception, President David Granger led the charge with the revocation of dozens of leases of rice farmers of Region 5, within the Mahaica Mahaicony Abary Agricultural Development Authority (MMA/ADA) scheme, issued to them by then President Donald Ramotar in 2014. These leases were first revoked by the Chairman of the MMA/ADA. I successfully challenged these revocations in the High Court. The Court ruled that only the President could revoke these leases. President Granger picked up the challenge and purported to revoke these leases. Again, I challenged these purported revocations in the High Court. The Court upheld the challenge once more on the ground that the President violated the constitutional rights of these farmers. The Attorney General has appealed these decisions. The appeals are pending at the Court of Appeal. Additionally, the Attorney General has retained Counsel at the private bar to challenge the legality of these leases on behalf of persons who claim an ancestral inheritance to these lands. I am currently defending these challenges in the High Court.

Then the rice farmers suffered the loss of the lucrative Petro-Caribe market. A suitable replacement has not yet been found by the Government. Their manifesto promise to the rice farmers of $9,000 per bag for paddy has become illusory. Further, rice farmers occupying State lands by leases were clubbed with a humongous increase in land rents and drainage and irrigation (D&I) charges, nationwide.

At Hope Estate, for example, land rents increases skyrocketed. The farmers protested. They were served with notices to vacate the rice lands, which they occupied by leases. They ignored these notices. Legal proceedings were instituted against them before the Rice Assessment Committee at the Cove and John Magistrate’s Court by Hope Estate Limited. Through the Rice Producer’s Association (RPA), I represented these farmers. All the legal proceedings were dismissed.

In Region 5, the new charges imposed by the MMA/ADA in 2017, upon rice farmers, were as follows: land rents increased from $1,000 per acre, per year to $7,000 per acre, per year and D&I charges increased from $2,500 per acre, per year to $8,000 per acre, per year. The lands occupied by these farmers are State lands held under leases. They fall under the administration of the MMA/ADA by virtue of the co-joint operation of the State Lands Act and the MMA/ADA Act.

A few days ago, farmers who own lands within this locality by virtue of transports and certificates of title (therefore not State lands) have received notifications in writing from the MMA/ADA, which seek to impose a most punitive regime of charges as D&I charges for the year 2018, and for the first half of 2019.

It must be emphasized that these new charges were levied without any prior, or adequate notice, whatsoever, to these farmers and it was never explained to them, the reason for these charges and the manner in which they are being computed. So, farmers who occupy lands which they own by transport or certificates of title, have been imposed with these charges, of which they are notified in March 2019, for the first time, in respect of the year 2018, without them being ever informed at any prior time prior (that is, during the year 2017 or 2018) of these increase.

In the correspondence below, you will observe that one farmer was informed on the 15th day of March 2019, for the first time, that he owes D&I charges for the year 2018, in the sum of $1,412,650 (One million, four hundred and twelve thousand, six hundred and fifty) and for the first half of 2019, in the sum of $706,325 (Seven hundred and six thousand, three hundred and twenty five) amounting to a grand total of $2,118,975 (Two million, one hundred and eighteen thousand, nine hundred and seventy five). The farmers are requested to settle this amount within 14 days. This another nail in the coffin of rice farmers.

As I have highlighted above, these lands are owned by these farmers by transports or certificates of title and therefore, they attract rates and taxes, which are payable to the relevant Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDCs) in relation to where the lands are located. These lands also attract property taxes payable to the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA). Since MMA/ADA has authority over State lands, it is my respectful contention that they have no authority to levy these D&I charges in respect of privately owned lands. However, assuming that they do, the imposition of these charges are unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and are levied without any known reason and accordingly are ultra vires, illegal and unlawful.

The RPA and Regional Chairman of Region 5 have already met with these farmers. I have advised the farmers not to pay these impugned charges. Another Court battle looms.

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