Panama likely to settle $1.9B debt owed to rice millers before year-end – Agri Minister

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Rice shipments from Guyana [Ministry of Agriculture file photo]
Minister of Agriculture Zulfikar Mustapha has said that efforts are being made to ensure  rice millers, who are owed $1.9 billion from some two years ago by the Panamanian authorities, are paid before the end of this year.

According to Mustapha, when the PPP/C Government took office in August, it found that no action was being taken by the previous coalition administration to intervene on behalf of the farmers and millers to ensure that the outstanding payment was made.

In spite of pleadings for help, the APNU/AFC government had insisted that it was not responsible for farmers being owed by millers for rice that was shipped to Panama and had taken a back-seat approach to the issue.

Minister Mustapha explained that the issue was taken to Cabinet and a decision was made for President Irfaan Ali to intervene.  He noted that President Ali did intervene in the matter and significant progress has been made.

According to the Minister, Panama has since accepted that it indeed owes Guyana the outstanding sum and asked for some time before the debt could be settled.

“They have acknowledged their debt to Guyana, and they asked for some time, hopefully before the year is out, to pay the $1.9b, with interest,” he disclosed during an interview with Globespan on Monday evening.

The Minister further noted that Panama has indicated that it is interested in continuing the rice contract that was started in 2018, even though it was suspended over payment issues.

Meanwhile, Mustapha highlighted that there were no clear-cut policies by the previous APNU/AFC administration regarding agricultural development.

“Let me be very frank, the Agriculture sector in our country was like a rudderless ship in water without a captain,” he expressed.

Mustapha posited that the politicians who were tasked with setting policies are the ones that should take the blame for the decay of the sector and not the ordinary technical officers.

He explained that immediately when he took over as Minister, he called meetings and set clear-cut guidelines and policies for every department within the Ministry.

Additionally, since almost every area in the sector was “ignored” over the past five years, he said that he had to request funds to pay staff at GuySuCo and to do urgent drainage and irrigation works in various areas.