President David Granger: Honourable Noel Holder, Minister of Agriculture; Honourable Ronald Bulkan, Minister of Communities; Regional Vice Chairman, Mr. Sheik Ayube, CEO CARICOM Development Fund, Mr. Soma; Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Mr. Jarvis; REO Mr. Dennis Jaikarran and other regional officials from the RDC; Project Coordinator, Mr. Frederick Flatts; farmers; most particularly the students who welcomed me on the bridge this afternoon; residents; members of the media.
Thank you for the opportunity to address you this afternoon and it’s very significant for all sorts of reasons. As you heard just now, this was one of the topics on which I addressed members of the Caribbean Community, only, the last two or three days.
Parika has always been a hub. It used to be of course the terminal of the West-Demerara railway. I don’t think many people remember that, but it has a rich and proud history of agriculture production.
As you know it was formally bought by emancipated Africans from abandoned plantations and they initiated production of ground provisions, fruit and other commodities. They carry their produce three times a week by boat to the Boerasirie Creek Bridge where it was sold.
Parika too has become the centre of movement of people. People who want to go to Bartica in the Cuyuni-Mazaruni Region, people who want to go to the Pomeroon-Supenaam Region, all flock to Parika.
It is the hub, it is the real gateway to the hinterland but Parika has changed. Parika continues to change. Its demography has been altered. It is now a bustling business and commercial hub but, nevertheless, aback Parika there is still the essential character as the transit point for moving produce and persons by boat to other parts of the country.
Ladies and gentlemen, this region is an agriculture powerhouse. This region produced 56,144 metric tons of rice, 8% of the total rice production of Guyana last year. This region produced about 16% of the country’s output of sugar. This region produced 92,465 metric tons of coconuts, fruits, roots, spices, pulses and vegetables, or 13% of the national output for crops last year.
This region nevertheless is a mighty giant, it is the second smallest region in the country and yet its production outstrips much larger regions. This region is home to more than a hundred thousand persons and certainly is one of the major agriculture regions in the country.
Parika, which is the hub, is part of this region and through Parika we can export a wide variety of crops. Region Three, the region to which most of you belong, is bigger than Antigua, bigger than Dominica, bigger than Grenada, bigger than St. Kitts-Nevis, bigger than St Lucia, bigger than St Vincent and the Grenadines, combined, (I see Mr. Soma wondering when I would stop).
Ladies and gentlemen, the world is facing a food crisis and by 2050, unless agriculture production increases substantially, we are going to be facing catastrophe. The food and agriculture organisation, FAO, estimates that there will be an additional two billion mouths to feed in the world within the next 35 years.
The growth of the world’s population, along with increased urbanisation is expected to increase the demands for food by some 70%. The ability of many countries to meet this demand will be affected by climate change. The global phenomenon of climate change is resulting, already, in increased desertification and the depletion of freshwater supplies.
Guyana’s abundance of land and freshwater supplies for agriculture purposes places it in a good position to take advantage of the increased demand for food, and in this regard we look to Region Three; opportunities for increased agriculture production exists, as you heard before, within the Caribbean Community, particularly within the eastern states.
The region’s agriculture sector share of GDP declined from 13% to 7% over the last twenty-five years. International food prices have been declining for the major traded agricultural products and are now at the lowest level since 2009. Yet, the food import bill of CARICOM has been rising and today CARICOM imports more than US$4 billion of food.
CARICOM’s food insecurity must be reversed, if our region is to survive. Our farmers can contribute to regional food security by increasing agriculture output. Caribbean leaders are looking to us and we are looking to Region Three for increased agricultural development.
Guyana can play a meaningful role in becoming the rice bowl and the vegetable basket of the Caribbean. We can play such a role through investment, through infrastructure as you’re seeing here today, through information and through innovation.
Ladies and gentlemen, in terms of investment, yesterday, along with the two ministers here, who held my left and right hands respectively, we went into the Rupununi. Rupununi is bigger than Costa Rica, it is the biggest region, occupies nearly a quarter of Guyana’s land space and we went to a farm which is about 12,500 hectares.
You have some countries which are not 12,500 hectares but we went to a farm yesterday which is that large. And that farm has defied the long held belief that our savannahs are only suitable for livestock rearing. That farm is a thriving agricultural enterprise, producing baigan, corn, fruit, lettuce, ground provisions, sweet potatoes, rice.
Unfortunately, most of that produce is exported to Brazil because of our infrastructure. Our infrastructure is so poor that that farm produce cannot come to Georgetown. It takes fifteen hours to go by road and at the end of that you got to fix your vehicle. But the farm, nevertheless, in the heart of the Rupununi can be a model for regional investment and agriculture.
As you know last week, this past week, Guyana hosted the 37th Regular Meeting of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean and I did invite regional leaders to invest in Guyana. They have the capital; we have the land, let them bring their money. The countries of the Caribbean not only have the capital; some of them have the expertise, and this is what Minister Holder and Bulkan and I saw yesterday, that they were able to bring the best technology from neighbouring countries into the Rupununi savannahs. I never thought it could have happened, that we could be producing thousands of tons of rice in the Rupununi but it is happening.
So investment is important, and I hope that my message to members of the diaspora when I was there last June to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Independence “come back and invest”; even if you don’t want to live here - stay and send the money but we need the capital for investment. The second thing I want to remind you of is infrastructure and this is what we are celebrating today.
My brothers and sisters, every government makes a contribution, whether it’s a PPP Government or PNC Government or a Coalition Government. Government doesn’t go in to office to destroy their country and we have to build. You’ve heard this afternoon about the first attempts to build these roads, then the second attempt and now we have a third attempt. The duty of government is to serve the people by continuing to build on our infrastructure.
Infrastructure is vital and you know this all too well. Everybody who has come up here to speak is proud of the road; is proud of the infrastructure and we want to do more, we want to extend that infrastructure.
As the Minister of Agriculture has said, without proper infrastructure there will be an increased cost for farmers to get your produce to market. There will be increased costs for farmers to bring in fertilizers and other commodities they need; tools and equipment. There will be an increased level of spoilage if you cannot get your produce to market. So infrastructure is essential, and that is why we know that this road and the roads that are being built will help you to become richer. We like rich people, rich farms.
Infrastructure such as these roads will facilitate greater access by our farmers to the markets. It will allow them to get their produce there more easily, more quickly and also in good condition. People don’t want to get parboiled bananas and spoiling fruit. These roads are means to stimulate rural farm economy, to catalyse the development of communities and to facilitate the integration of rural areas into the national economy.
I hope that one of these days we can get away from words like bush and backdam. I’ve been trying but people ain’t tekkin’ me on. We don’t have bush. We don’t have backdam. We have people, we have geographical areas and what we’re trying to do is remove the inequality between those two sectors; so that children in the hinterland could get the same type of education as children in the coastland; so that children in the backdam could get the same type of education as the children on the public road. That is why we need infrastructure; it helps to create equality.
I have been informed that there’s already been a 25% increase in acreage of cash crops under cultivation between 2014 to now. Meanwhile in Naamryck, Parika, the back, there has been a 50% increase in acreage under cash crop cultivation over the same period. We will continue as a responsible government to invest in infrastructure.
The third thing I’d like to mention is information. Farmers nowadays need the best market information; they need access to the internet so they can know where to sell their produce at best prices.
I remember some time ago in Mahaicony I saw this canter truck come, selling agricultural produce. I said, “Where you from?” Parika; they left Parika and can sell their goods at a profit in Mahaicony but this comes about because you know what the market calls for, so you could remove the guesswork by knowing where to sell your produce at the best prices.
At the same time you need to know how to improve your production, how to improve your management of your crops and livestock. You need to find new markets and sometimes, as I found in Pomeroon-Supenaam (Region Two), somebody is already selling coconut oil to Trinidad, coconut water is being exported but you can only do that if you have the information and you know that there is a market out there for selling those commodities. Don’t let anybody put any powdery substance in the coconut though. (Laughter.) This information will allow farmers to know about the export markets that are available and I tell you the Caribbean is interested in Guyana’s products.
They have a powerful tourism industry - people eating food all the time. Many of them have other business - Trinidad and Tobago has petroleum but at the end of the day people have to eat food. A friend of mine went into Mahdia to look for gold. When I saw him running his business place I said, “What happened to the gold business”? He said, “Nah, I’m making more money selling food”; and it is a lesson that you must learn.
Food security involves encouraging farmers to produce more and we will do this by ensuring that farmers gain more for their production. Increased incomes mean that more resources are available to plug into expanding production.
We will establish farmers’ markets, which will allow farmers to retail their produce at prices higher than they would obtain from the middlemen. So you don’t just have to go to Parika market, you can go beyond; and finally let me say this: innovation.
Sometimes you know you’re producing the same commodities your grandfather produced or your great grandfather produced, but we’re living in a changing world and we must learn to innovate. We must reduce your exposure to price downturn. Sometimes you try to sell something and people say, “We don’t want that no more” but you must be able to innovate so that when you see Corentyne producing a lot of fish and you go down Georgetown and you go here at Parika and you go Vreed-en-Hoop and you see these fish and chip shops, you can say, ‘this is an opportunity for me to sell sweet potato chips, to sell plantain chips’.
So that we stop importing potato chips and that is why I was very glad some years ago - this was before I stopped being glad - I was glad first and then I was sorry afterwards, but the cassava mill that was not a success and although it happened a long time ago I’d like to invite the Minister of Agriculture to really investigate the - I don’t want to say failure - but the lack of success of that.
Equally, the Parika packaging facility. Y’all using it yet? I didn’t hear you. Hardly! All right.
Well, something is wrong that in both cases the respective governments should spend millions of dollars on these two projects, which were meant to help agriculture production but both have failed. I don’t know the reason. Maybe you can tell Mr. Holder the reason; you put it in the wrong place or you put the wrong mill or it paying too little, whatever it is, but I’m asking him to just do no big Commission of Inquiry; just find out so we don’t make these mistakes again. Maybe it’s better in private hands. No private businessman would establish a facility for $89 million or whatever it is and allow it to fail unless he in some business which I don’t know about.
So this region, particularly this East Bank Essequibo section of this region, has attracted the attention for more than forty years of the central government but these two projects stick out because of the lack of success and if we are to go forward I want to see a partnership between the farmer, the region and the government so that we don’t make these expensive mistakes again.
Ladies and gentlemen, today we are here to commission these roads and we feel that this ceremony, okay, it’s just a ceremonial event; but it is significant in that it demonstrates the commitment of the government to the community and the involvement of the region in advancing the competitiveness and the progress of this important agricultural sector and important agricultural region, Essequibo Islands- West Demerara.
As you heard before over nine thousand, five hundred farming households will benefit and if you calculate it, every farming household would have more than five members except of course where daddy had ten children. You’re looking at maybe over 50,000 people will benefit.
So this road is yours. We expect to see a significant increase in the output of vegetables and fruit in years to come. Again, as has been said before, I’d like to express the thanks of the Government of Guyana, to the CARICOM Development Fund (CDF). We thank the Fund for disbursing money for this purpose. We’re happy, too, that Guyana is one of the first member states to receive benefits from the second funding cycle under the CARICOM Development Fund.
These roads, ladies and gentlemen, are a public good; they’re a public asset but their good goes far beyond Region Three. I would like to see their good going to the country as a whole; sometimes I go into the market myself. I ask people “Where this come from?” Parika.
And you know the taste, it tastes different. I don’t know if y’all produce coconut water but when I drink coconut water, I ask them “Where it come from?” because Pomeroon coconut water different bad.
So these are my wishes for you. We are here to work in partnership, we’re not here to dictate or dominate and I’m very confident that this venture on the part of the Caribbean Community, the Government of Guyana, the RDC and the farming community of Region Three will be for the benefit of us all.
Thank you and may God bless you.