President David Granger: Members of the National Assembly; exhibitors; residents of Region Five; members of the media; ladies and gentlemen. I’m very happy to be here and to re-engage with Mr. Imran Saccoor and his team. I believe they were one of the first Chambers of Commerce to visit me in 2015.
I’m very happy also to have heard the presentations from the Regional Chairman, Mr. Vickchand Ramphal and Mr. Saccoor because their comments point to the fact that we need to work together to resolve the challenges, to overcome the challenges in Region Five. We can’t overcome those challenges if you don’t work together. It’s not a one-person show. It’s not for the Chamber alone; it’s not in the region alone; it’s not the central government alone; this is a very important region. I regard West Berbice as the bastion of Guyana’s food security.
West Berbice has the potential and it also has the opportunity to become the country’s rice bowl. The region is rich in natural resources; it has an area of 4,190 square kilometres. This makes it bigger than Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts and St Vincent altogether- that is the size of Region Five; bigger than six CARICOM States.
Region Five has over 324 hectares under cash crop cultivation; over 42,000 hectares under paddy cultivation; over 1,600 hectares under coconut cultivation. In addition to that, it has large herds of livestock, including cattle, goats, pigs and sheep.
Region Five has important agrarian infrastructure and more than that it has a culture of husbandry and I would say that the dedication and commitment of farmers in West Berbice is without equal in any other part of Guyana.
West Berbice also is made up of an ethnically diverse population. Even though the population is small, just about 50,000 persons, it includes large populations of Indians, Amerindians, Africans; and of course, you know, when those three people get together- mixed people – and it also has representatives of the various faiths, as you heard a few minutes ago, of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.
I remember coming from the Corentyne many years ago when I was young and driving through West Berbice, I would say quietly to myself, God bless West Berbice. I have never seen so much water, sometimes you see animals isolated on bits of land surrounded by water. This place, this entire region, was the victim of repeated flooding, but thank God nearly four decades ago the Mahaica-Mahaicony-Abary Agricultural Development Authority [MMA-ADA] was created and in this region- West Berbice. The scheme that was installed here is the most successful agricultural scheme that was built by any party since independence. So nobody is interested in damaging or destroying agriculture in this region. The most expensive and the most extensive agriculture scheme is the MMA-ADA scheme created since independence, no other government has done that. This is because of the importance of West Berbice. This is because of the faith that we have that West Berbice is not a basket case, but instead, it’s the food basket of this nation and the Caribbean Community.
This region is an agricultural powerhouse; it produced nearly 248,000 tonnes of rice last year accounting for 46 per cent of national production. It produced 28 million coconuts – nearly one-third of the total production of the entire country. It produced 74.7 million kilogrammes of poultry; 1.6 million kilogrammes of beef; 281,000 thousand kilogrammes of pork; 60,000 kilogrammes of mutton44 million litres of milk; 1,680 metric tons of fish and shrimp. No President could ignore such massive production. And let me make it clear, I’m here to augment that production to help you to produce more and anything that is good for West Berbice is good for Guyana.
This region, at least the Chamber of Commerce of this region, has coined the slogan: ‘Building a Diversified Economy’ and I agree with Mr. Saccoor and his Chamber that economic diversification is necessary not only to keep the economy of this region stable, but also to cause it to grow; to insulate it against the effects of downturns in prices and the demand for its commodities to compensate for any decline in earnings as a result of the decline in the traditional sectors.
Ladies and gentlemen, we live in a competitive world. As I was coming along the highway, I saw dozens of trucks laden with paddy waiting to get into the mills. No truck owners and operators can afford to have their trucks sitting down there one, two, three, four days because it means the cost of the paddy will go up.
You cannot go to Vietnam or China and see people drying paddy on the roadside because the cost of paddy will go up. We have to work out ways and means of bringing down the prices so we can compete on the international market. Our sugar has to compete on the international market; you don’t just produce sugar and whatever the price is you go there and sell it. People will buy cheaper sugar from Vietnam and from Japan and from China and India.
We have to produce our commodities more cheaply otherwise we will not be able to compete- whoever is in the government; you will not be able to compete if your commodities are too expensive. We want to save the sugar industry, but it must be efficient and competitive and Mr. Saccoor is right, we’re not working to destroy the industry, we’re working to develop the industry and the industry has been contracting.
Some countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St. Kitts Nevis, Jamaica, and Belize have seen their industries contract; some have disappeared altogether, because the cost of production was too high. Guyana is trying to preserve its industry and that is why there’ll be a Blairmont and that is why there is going to be an Albion, to preserve as many of our plantations and estates as possible. Uitvlugt will remain but we have to deal with the problems of cost.
So, ladies and gentleman, I agree with the slogan chosen for this fair and exposition – that we must think about diversification. The West Berbice Chamber of Industry and Commerce is in a good position to lead the demand for change and diversification and I propose tonight that the regional administration should sit down with the central government, particularly the Ministry of Communities and the non-governmental organisations and the NDCs all together and let us examine the challenges facing West Berbice.
The region cannot do it alone, it has to sit down and speak to the Ministry of Communities … it has to go to meetings; it has to bring all ten NDCs on board. The region cannot do it alone, it has to sit down with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other non-governmental organisations and you will see the difference. This region will move forward if we stop protesting and start cooperating.
Ladies and gentleman, I do agree with the president of the Chamber of Commerce that we could explore new industries. We can export new products. For example, West Berbice is becoming the headquarters of horse racing- that is important for sports tourism. You have produced some fine cricketers, some of Guyana’s finest. I too would like to see some form of cricket stadium here, but let us look at how these things could be possible. Let us look at how we can add value to the products, which you have already mastered in this region.
Let us look at how we can create what they call the R.E.A.P – a Regional Economic Action Plan for West Berbice and we will reap the benefits of that plan if we work together. First of all, we have to understand that the market in Guyana is small but there’s a bigger market in the Caribbean called the Caribbean Single Market and Economy and I urge West Berbice to embrace an export-oriented economy.
West Berbice on its own could become a major exporter of food, but to achieve that goal you must think beyond the domestic market. You must think of producing a food product, which can be put on the tables of the hotels in Barbados and Trinidad and Grenada: frozen fish and pork and mutton, eggs, milk products, packaged rice- all of these commodities can come out of West Berbice.
Nowadays the middleclass is growing; they want to eat yoghurt in the morning. There are nearly a quarter [of a] million children in school. They want to drink milk, they want to have chocolate milk; they want to eat ice cream. All of these products can come out of west Berbice if they are properly packaged, if they are properly marketed.
Nobody is holding West Berbice back but the entrepreneurs must realise the energy of the farmers and the manufacturers and the business persons. So let us bring land together with labour and with capital to make Berbice great again. That’s what the big man said, “Let’s make Berbice great again”.
Mr. Chairman, Mr. President, agro-processing and manufacturing will not only prevent spoilage, but it will reduce crop losses. I am not here to dictate, but as I said there must be few serious rice producers in the world where the trucks have to sit down on the road three, four, five days. The quality of the paddy will not improve in the rain and the dew, I can tell you that.
Perhaps you need to build more silos, perhaps you have to have more efficient transportation, perhaps you need to expand the milling capacity, but these are matters that must be examined under your R.E.A.P., these are the challenges that we have to face. We are talking about developing port facilities in the Berbice River so you can ship your goods directly to the Caribbean and to Suriname and to other countries.
The second pillar of your R.E.A.P., Mr. Chairman, Mr. President, should be energy generation. You hear that machine that is running? That is the symbol of an addiction. People get addicted to gasoline, like you have drug addiction. Well, we are addicted to gasoline but this region has bountiful sunlight. It has a long coastline on the Atlantic. We can generate solar power, we can generate wind power.
Again, I’d like to refer to my days on the Corentyne and as a young man we did not know about GPL [the Guyana Power and Light]. The rice millers on the Corentyne used to produce electricity from wind chargers. The wind is free, so when you talk about energy in West Berbice we must have a policy of wind farms and solar farms so that we generate renewable energy and we don’t have to bring in expensive gasoline into West Berbice even when Guyana starts to produce its own petroleum.
Let us continue to walk on two feet. Let us have our solar and wind generated electricity and whatever comes from offshore in our oil wells, we can sell and make money to send our children to school and to build proper roads and ports and harbours and develop our infrastructure.
This region had become a flourishing agriculture region mainly because of the MMA scheme and we need more of those schemes if we are to stabilise the drainage and irrigation situation on the coast of Guyana. So energy has to shift over to solar and wind power and away from petroleum and dieseline.
The third pillar Mr. Regional Chairman and President of Regional Commerce, as you pointed out, is economic diversification itself. You have chosen a correct theme, a correct topic and I don’t regard it as an empty slogan, it’s serious. It is a call for change; it is intended to ensure that the economy is transformed. There are opportunities for ecotourism. This region is blessed with four important rivers. You go up the Mahaicony; you see some of the 600 species of birds in this region. Many people in West Berbice have never even gone up to Mahaicony and seen those birds. Tourists from Europe will pay good money to come to see those birds; to come to see the flora and fauna of this region and that is why our government has decided that every region must have its own protected areas to preserve the habitats of our flora and fauna; some of the snakes, some of the monkeys, some of the caimans, they live in those wetlands.
Wetlands are not places to be filled in with sand and mud, they’re to be protected so that those rare species could flourish and that our children and generations to come could see those animals live- not in a bowl of souse or pepper pot but live. If you go up that same Mahaicony you would come upon Moraikobai- some of the most beautiful craft, in fact I went up to Moraikobai to present a boat to that community to help the children to come to school and the women and the mothers there presented me with some of their craft, a hammock and baskets.
So when you speak of economic diversification Mr. President, the other president; you’re pushing on an open door because this region is ready for economic diversification. You need to protect the habitats for that wildlife; you need to join in the changes which are taking place when we call for Guyana to become a green state.
A ‘green’ state is not only about solid waste disposal, it’s about energy, as I spoke to you about a few minutes ago, and it’s about our wildlife, it’s about our protected areas. It’s about a new form of tourism – ecotourism – and people will be prepared to spend good money to come to see your flora and fauna; to come to buy your arts and craft, to come to see your horse racing. All of these are areas of diversification, all of these are areas, which could be explored and exploited by your entrepreneurs in the private sector; by your regional administration and by your Neighbourhood Democratic Councils.
Mr. President, Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, this region need not be poor. This region need not have any unemployed young people. I agree with you that more can be done. I cannot promise you a UG campus; I’m fighting hard to keep the campuses at Tain and Turkeyen going, they have challenges. I met with the Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor; there is much to be done.
I can’t promise you an aerodrome, but I believe that every single region must have its own aerodrome and this region needs an aerodrome to support this agricultural thrust and the matter has been raised already with the Minister of Public Infrastructure and its convenient and it’s inexpensive for the crops to be seeded or even to be protected against pests by the use of modern technology. So these are areas of economic development that we could examine further, and I would like to give you support in your discussions with central government.
Ladies and gentlemen, the initiative that you’re taking this evening is personally very important to me. This is my fourth regional trade fair and expo. A week ago I was at Anna Regina, two weeks before that I was at Linden and much longer before that I was at Rose Hall. We’ve had trade fairs therefore at Region Two and Region Six and Region Ten and now at Region Five. This is a good idea, keep it up.
Every region should have a trade fair and exposition to show what it can produce and to attract visitors from other regions and I’d like to see the chairmen from other regions come here to learn from the example of West Berbice. I’d like to see the chairman of West Berbice go to other regions to see how they do their things, what they produce and what lessons we can learn from one another.
So in months to come, I look forward to seeing the RDC working with the NDC, working with Ministry of Communities and working with the non-governmental organisations in this region to draft this Regional Economic Action Plan- this R.E.A.P. We cannot go forward without a plan and we cannot go forward without speaking to each other and working together.
Economic diversification which you called for requires an inclusive and consultative approach. The region must collaborate. This is not a PNC region or a PPP region; this is a West Berbice region for all of the citizens, residents of this region. So once we take that oath in front of the President, we drop our party affiliation and pick up our regional affiliation and commitment.
When I was sworn in as President of this country on the 16th of May, 2015; I said, “I’ll be President for all Guyana”. Day before yesterday I was at Muritaro, before that I was at Lusignan, I was at Parika, Anna Regina; I go to all of the regions because Guyanese live all over the place in this country.
I don’t go to PNC regions or AFC regions or APNU regions or PPP regions. I go wherever Guyanese are and in this region wherever residents of West Berbice are they must receive the attention and support of the regional administration, and wherever the regions are the Ministry of Communities and the central government must deal with them so that the entire country is improved. Mr. Chairman, Mr. President, as I said, I am very happy to be here this evening, I am very glad that you have set yourself the task of making sure that these annual trade fairs and expositions continue.
I have said that I have every confidence in the capability of this region to become the food bowl, the rice bowl not only of Guyana, but also of the Caribbean and I’d also like to give you my commitment to work with you through the Ministry of Communities, to the regions, to the NDCs to make sure that West Berbice becomes a prosperous and productive region.
I thank you and may God bless you all.