by Zena Henry
With a history-making production on the way, debts to rice farmers and Venezuela being the State’s only rice market, the government is setting for bilateral talks with the Spanish speaking nation to seek an extension of the oil –for-rice agreement which is expected to expire this year.
Guyana last year produced 600,000 tons of the grain in 2014 and is projected to produce more than one millon tons this year.
Under the existing agreement, Guyana will sell more than 200,000 tons of rice and paddy to Venezuela.
The engagement also comes at a time when other South American nations are eyeing the lucrative Venezuelan market, and at a time when the industry is not at its best with longstanding stakeholders in the industry insisting that a crisis is on hand.
Minister of State Joseph Harmon told a press conference has already said that the PetroCaribe Fund which is supposed to hold the proceeds from the oil-for –rice arrangement was “bare” and that government must find US$15M to pay rice farmers for paddy produced in previous crops. He mentioned at his second press briefing, Wednesday June 17, that “what we are getting so far are bills. He blamed the situation on, “years of mismanagement by the (former Administration) when they were in government.”
Harmon said, “…the shipment of rice to Venezuela under this (PetroCaribe) arrangement comes to an end this year.” “We are engaging Venezuela on a bilateral basis to see whether it is possible to extend that facility for Venezuela to continue buying rice from Guyana.”
“We have been advised that there are other countries in the South American continent that are pushing to take over that rice market in Venezuela.” The government is banking however on the time span of business between the two countries for Venezuela to keep Guyana close. “We believe that because of the length of time that we have been shipping rice to Venezuela market they might have become accustomed to Guyana’s rice and we stand a better chance of being able to negotiate a longer term arrangement.”
Stakeholders within the rice industry had been pleading for the location of other rice markets to meet Guyana’s massive production needs. Harmon said that the Foreign Affairs Minister has been assigned to deal with this matter, while, “… other ministers will be engaged in this type of shuttle diplomacy to ensure that we get the best out of this situation.”
The Guyana Rice Producers Association (GRPA) on Tuesday June 16 called on, “the Ministry of Finance and the APNU+AFC Coalition Government to immediately honour their obligation and make the payments long over-due in order to avoid dire consequences to this vital, national export industry.”
They noted the plight currently facing the industry because of indebtedness by the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB) to its contracted paddy and rice suppliers. The payment, the RPA advised, would go a long way towards alleviating severe financial hardships facing farmers.
Rice farmers, under the previous administration, had argued that the GRDB assumed new functions; finding markets for “private “rice exporters and negotiating prices when they are supposed to function mainly as an oversight body. They claimed political appointments and even accused members of the agency’s top brass of having stalks in the sector. Recently, prominent Essequibo farmers called for the resignation of the General Manager, Jagnarine Singh. Government says that the GRDB is another State agency that will receive a forensic audit.