The closure of Wales Estate has come as a shock for many and not only for the 1700 persons who will lose their jobs. As so many analysts have explained, the approximately 7-8000 persons who depend on these workers as breadwinners will also be affected. Then there are the hundreds of private farmers, shopkeepers and small businesses that depend on the cash flow from the Estate’s operations. In two months it might also come as a shock to the government when the results of the local government elections comes in from the villages of West Bank Demerara, that are in the Wales catchment area.
The government handled this closure very poorly. It is not that the reasons for closing the estate might not be valid – but in a democracy, when a government is the owner of such a large entity, it must take into consideration the wider impact of its decisions and not just the economic one. While it is all well and good to say that GUYSUCO must be run like a business, even businesses have look at the social impact of their decisions in the modern era.
The government also bungled when they refused to debate the closure in the National Assembly by invoking a technicality and having the Speaker going along that the matter was not “urgent”.
To any government, a decision that places thousands of citizens at risk of sliding into impoverishment is by definition “urgent”. The PPP has been given much ammunition about a “betrayal of the essence of democracy” with the government “dictating and not debating”.
The closure of Wales should also not be used as political football – which is what the PPP appears to be bent on doing. Do the PPP leaders believe that marching and protesting in front of Parliament will reverse the decision? The PPP knew that at some time or other the Demerara Estates production of sugar had to be rationalised – just as they had done with East Bank (Diamond) and on the East Coast (LBI). Do they really believe that Wales Estate is viable? With all the institutional memory at their disposal, the PPP should seek to make a positive contribution in the way forward on the Wales closure.
Former President Bharrat Jagdeo did in fact suggest a tactic to improve the balance sheet for Wales by the government converting debt into equity. But this playing with numbers does not change the reality on the ground: Wales cannot produce sugar at a price that makes economic sense. More effort should be placed on plans for alternative uses of the land which are still eminently suitable for agriculture, since they are already irrigated and drained. As some have suggested, maybe the land can be leased to the workers in 15-acre plots and probably a large foreign firm be encouraged to team up with them to produce agriculture products that have better market potential in a world where “food security” is still high on the agenda.
The government must be willing to work with the PPP and the sugar unions so that the citizens of West Bank, can have the opportunity to experience “the good life”, promised by both political parties. We must avert what seems to be a “Guyanese Tragedy” in the making. Do our politicians have the will to be statesmen?