Kaieteur News – There is bald-faced attempt to suggest that Irfaan Ali’s Caribbean food security plan is a reproduction and reintroduction of Burnham’s Grow More Food initiative. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Burnham could only spout rhetoric about Guyana becoming the breadbasket of the Caribbean. But in reality his attempts to revive the local agriculture flopped, more so after his disastrous record of the 1970’s when food production declined, malnutrition and beri-beri increased and Guyana became financially insolvent.
It all began with his promise to Feed, Clothe and House (FCH) the nation by 1976. By the time that deadline came around the country was already in crisis and the FCH had collapsed.
The FCH plan was linked to import substitution which was then in vogue. Import substitution led to the banning of a number of items, including apples, grapes, sardines, and other food items. The plan was to have these substituted by local produce.
However, agriculture production began to decline and the economy went into a tailspin after 1976. Not only did Burnham fail to feed the nation but per capita consumption of food items had declined.
According to Odeen Ishmael, the Guyana Consumer Association reported that in 1976 per capita consumption of poultry was a mere eight ounces per week; eggs were 1 egg per person every eight days; fish, 14 ounces per person per week; beef, 4 ounces per person per week; and ground provisions, 5 pounds per person per month.
According to Ishmael, local food production fell short of its target – vegetables by 2 million lbs., pulses and nuts by 6 million lbs., and fruits by 14 million lbs. Milk production also declined.
Burnham had hoped that cooperatives would be the vehicle for ensuring self-sufficiency. But this proved an abject failure. In an attempt to restore credibility to farming cooperatives as a model for food self-sufficiency, Burnham granted to Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, some 3,800 acres of land in the interior.
After the Jonestown experiment ended in the world greatest human tragedy, Burnham found himself in a deeper morass. Food shortages wracked the country. People had to queue for food. Far from becoming the breadbasket of the Caribbean, Guyana soon became a begging bowl.
Trinidad is once again making an offer to procure Guyana’s crude. In considering that offer, Guyana should remember when Trinidad bankrolled Burnham’s acquisition of fuel, so much so that Guyana bankrupted the Caribbean Multilateral Clearing Facility which had allowed Caricom states to trade with each other in their own currency. Without Trinidad’s help, there would have been fuel and food riots locally.
By 1982, the country was insolvent. By the end of the decade Guyana had been deemed non-creditworthy and a highly indebted poor country.
Burnham’s revived “Grow More Food, and “Be Local, Buy Local” were attempts to stimulate the country declining agricultural sector. It was in response to severe shortages of foreign exchange shortages and thus the need to limit food imports.
Among the imports which were restricted was wheaten flour. Guyana could not afford to import this commodity and this began the highly unpopular emphasis on rice flour.
But Burnham had a slogan for every crisis. He came up with “Produce or Perish”. By 1983, for example, half of Guyana’s children were deemed to lack proper nutrition, and the incidence of beri-beri (white mouth) had increased.
By 1985 the food crisis had not abated. The Working People’s Alliance launched a Long Walk from Corriverton to Georgetown to protest the country’s food crisis. As such, even though Burnham’ changed course in the early 1980’s he was never successful in his food security plans.
At the time Burnham died, the alarm bells had not begun to ring about Caricom’s food import bill. Those alarm bells began ringing long after Burnham died.
There is therefore no truth to the claim that Irfaan Ali’s emphasis on food security represents a reincarnation of Burnham’s “Grow More Food” and “Be Local, Buy Local” campaigns. A key element of Ali’s plans is to help CARICOM reduce its food import bill.
Burnham had no such ambitions. He could not feed his own countrymen much less to feed the Caribbean.
Ali on the other hand is not seeking to feed anyone. He is seeking to increase local food production and to penetrate the Regional market. Prior to Ali, former Agriculture Minister, Robert Persaud, had launched a “Grow More Food” campaign during the food crisis after 2008.
Then it was emphasised that the PPP/C’s “Grow More Food Campaign (GMFC)” was different from Burnham’s version. The PPP/C said then that its GMFC was an agricultural diversification strategy, expanding production and increasing market opportunities.
But like Burnham’s food plans, Ali’s food security plans will also fail. And the main reason is that Guyana appears now to be batting for Brazil rather than for itself.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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