May 24, 2022 Letters
When Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago declared: “I have seen this before, heard it before and don’t want to hear it again, we know what to do, the question is, are we prepared to do it?” I am reminded of the following headlines; ‘Caricom raises external tariffs on pasta, cement‘ (G/C Jan.11, 2020), ‘CCJ throws out Belize’s claim against T&T over CET on sugar’ (S/N Feb.2, 2022). ‘Rock Hard loses cement case against Trinidad at CCJ’ (S/N March 9, 2022). I believe it was scenarios like these the PM was referring to.
Of the nine featured speakers that addressed the forum held under the theme ‘Investing In Vision 25 By 2025’ all were politicians. All made reference to CARICOM’s pervasive food import bill amounting to the staggering sum of US$6 Bln. and the urgent need to reduce it, ensure greater market access, boost food systems and ensure food security. Bringing to the attention of CARICOM leaders the need to address the pervasiveness of the region’s food import bill is nothing new. In 1976, the then Secretary General of Caricom, Alister McIntyre drew to the attention of Heads of Government the ‘scandalous’ nature of the region’s food import bill which at that time stood at US$1,000mln. Forty six years later it is obvious that no one listened.
By 2000, the region’s food bill skyrocketed from US$2.08B to US$4.25B in 2011 with only 12.7 % originating from within the region. In just over nine years, the region’s food import bill is now US$6B.
The largest importers in volumes of food, because of population size, are Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti, but Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and St. Lucia are the biggest importers of food on a per capita basis. It is to be noted that neither Jamaica, Haiti, St. Lucia nor Suriname were present at the Prime Ministerial or Presidential level at the investment forum and expo.
In an effort to shore up ‘Vision 25 by 2025’ calls were made for financial injections in the agriculture sector, removal of trade barriers to facilitate improved market access for agricultural products and the establishment of reliable intra-regional transportation to facilitate movement of agricultural items across the region. We have heard those calls before at the political level however, when it reaches the technical level of the Council for Trade and Development (COTED), it’s a completely different story. Unless the call is heeded that the leaders must “Leave the conference with a firm commitment to take action, not at the regional level but in the individual jurisdictions and sign trade barrier removal agreements now” nothing will change.
Incidentally, having heard that US$7.5 billion in investments will be needed to achieve the 25 by 2025 target, it would have been reasonable to expect that addresses by the Presidents of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), the Governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), the President of the Inter-American Development Bank, (IDB) or the Managing Director of the World Bank would have been programmed.
Moreover, it would have been interesting to learn whether the regional and international financial institutions (IFI’s) are prepared to expand their respective agricultural lending portfolios to facilitate greater access to financial resources for the growth and development of the regional agricultural sector.
In the circumstances, apart from official agri-development assistance by the IFI’s on easy terms to governments, local commercial banks with a focus on agri-clients, should review their interest rates policy and agro-loan terms and conditions so that they are in alignment with the market and their competitors’ rates. Moreover, consideration should be given to Improving the liquidity of farmland-secured loans and to providing long term-fixed rates to farmers and ranchers.
And where necessary, governments should consider establishing agri-development banks with branches closer to farming communities for assistance in key and critical areas as land and water development, research, rural development initiatives and agricultural extension.
In his address to the World Food Summit held in Rome in November 1996, President Cheddi Jagan pointed out that 40% of farm households in Guyana own only five acres of land and less. He stressed that 58% of farm households live below the poverty line in a country with a small population in a relatively large country with an abundance of water resources and arable land in the state sector.
President Jagan suggested that each farmer should have at least 100 acres, if not more, but the land must be drained and irrigated and protected from rising sea levels.
This is precisely where greater financial assistance from the IFI’s, local commercial banks and regional bodies like the Institute For Private Enterprise Development (IPED) is needed.
And while calls to the effect that ‘The time is now,’ that a ‘Change in mindset is required,’ that ‘Removal of trade barriers are integral to better integration in CARICOM,’ and that ‘ Investment in shipping is required for food security’ are high-sounding and laudatory, the commitment to reduce the food import bill by 25 % by 2025, a mere three years from now is highly ambitious and financially questionable.
But the more fundamental question is does the much anticipated vision fall into a national development strategy of any member state?
These fundamental questions aside, one is left to wonder what was being done to address the problem at previous meetings of COTED and the Council for Community and Foreign Relations (COFCOR) as well as during annual CARICOM Agricultural Week gatherings, at meetings of Caribbean Agricultural Health and Safety Agency (CAHFSA), the Caribbean Agricultural Development Institute (CARDI), the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CCFP), CARICOM’s Competition Commission, meetings of Heads of CARDI, FAO and IICA and at meetings of the Regional Transportation Commission. Were they all asleep at the wheel?
Between 2003 and 2006, intra-regional trade experienced a slew of disputes among CARICOM member states. This was manifested in the prohibition by Suriname of logs from Guyana, the imposition of non-tariff barriers by St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname on rice exports from Guyana as well as the prohibition by Trinidad and Tobago of our beef and poultry products using sanitary and phytosanitary measures to do so.
COTED could not resolve the disputes because of the ubiquitous relationship between the host governments and private sector entities in the countries concerned.
But it was not only market access for industrial items that gave rise to disputes among CARICOM member states; market access for agricultural items produced in the region as well as the constant flood of applications for waivers of the Common External Tariff (CET) to allow for importation of agricultural items from extra-regional sources have been a major bugbear within the region’s single market and economy.
Restrictions on market access for agricultural and non-agricultural items were manifested in the form of tariff and non-tariff measures, quantitative restrictions, non-binding tariffs, subsidies or domestic support measures, export subsidies, special safeguard measures in agriculture, technical barriers including mandatory technical regulations such as sanitary and phytosanitary measures as well as standards continue to plague intra-regional trade.
At the heart of these disputes are abuse of waivers of the Common External Tariff (CET), interpretation and application of World Trade Organization (WTO) laws, the role of COTED, transparency in application of the provisions and procedures of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas (RTC) and variations from the fundamental objective of CARICOM; to create a protected market for producers and manufacturers.
Guyana has been no angel amongst regional violators of the CET. In the past, we triggered disputes with respect to importation of cement from extra-regional sources, and the imposition of a discriminatory environmental tax on beverages from Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname which ended up at the CCJ and we lost. Of recent, claims have been made that Guyana’s Local Content Law is at variance with the RTC and WTO law. That view was countered by a claim that Guyana can chose to opt out of its treaty obligations should the circumstances dictate that such a step be taken to protect the nation’s oil and gas industry from any hostile takeover by Trinidadians. Assurances were subsequently given that “Guyana will uphold its treaty obligations.”
It was against this backdrop that the GCCI recently stirred the controversy further by issuing a press release declaring its opposition to the GOG signing an MOU with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago which it claimed targets agriculture, energy and security.
The CGGI’s disagreement with the GOG was premised on the argument that too many Non-Tariff Barriers to Guyanese exports to Trinidad are still in place and that they constitute impediments to the growth and development of Guyanese businesses.
Questions were raised as regards the timeliness and helpfulness of the GCCI’s statement and whether it was a true reflection of the views of GCCI’s membership. One newspaper went as far as to say that the Chamber’s position was ‘out of line’ and that the organization was engaged in ‘publicity grabbing’. I disagree. The GCCI statement proved to be timely and useful.
Who drew that ‘line’ and in whose interests are questions that need to be answered.
Clement J. Rohee
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