Dear Editor,

When Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago said; “I’ve seen it before, I’ve heard it before and I don’t want to hear it again, we know what to do, the question is are we ready to do it?” I remember the following titles; “CARICOM raises external tariffs on pulp and cement” (G/C 11 January 2020), “CCJ dismisses Belize complaint against T&T over CET on sugar” (S/N 2 February 2022). “Rock Hard Loses Cement Case Against Trinidad at CCJ” (S/N Mar 9, 2022). I believe it was scenarios like those that the Prime Minister was referring to.

Of the nine (9) guest speakers who spoke at the forum organized under the theme “Investing in Vision 25 by 2025”, all were politicians. All referred to the ubiquitous CARICOM food import bill of a staggering US$6 billion. and the urgent need to reduce it, ensure better access to markets, strengthen food systems and ensure food security. Drawing the attention of CARICOM leaders to the need to address the region’s pervasive food import bill is nothing new. In 1976, then CARICOM Secretary General Alister McIntyre drew the attention of government leaders to the “scandalous” nature of the region’s food import bill which at the time stood at 1,000 million US dollars. Forty-six years later, it is clear that no one has listened.

In 2000, the region’s food bill skyrocketed to US$2.08 billion. at 4.25 billion US dollars. in 2011 with only 12.7% from the region. In just over nine years, the region’s food import bill is now US$6 billion. The largest food importers by volume due to population size are Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti, but Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and Saint Lucia are the largest food importers per inhabitant. It should be noted that neither Jamaica, Haiti, Saint Lucia nor Suriname were present at the prime minister or presidential level at the investment forum and expo.

In an effort to consolidate “Vision 25 by 2025”, calls have been made for financial injections into the agricultural sector, the removal of trade barriers to facilitate improved market access for agricultural products and the provision of reliable intra-regional transport to facilitate the movement of agricultural products across the Region. We have heard these calls before at the political level, however, when it reaches the technical level of the Council for Trade and Development (COTED), it is a whole different story. Unless the call is heard that leaders should “leave the conference with a firm commitment to act, not regionally but in individual jurisdictions and sign agreements to remove trade barriers now,” nothing will change. .

Incidentally, after hearing that $7.5 billion in investment will be needed to reach the goal of 25 by 2025, it would have been reasonable to expect that the speeches of the presidents of the Development Bank Caribbean (CBD), 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. In addition, it would have been interesting to know if the regional and international financial institutions (IFIs) are ready to expand their respective agricultural loan portfolios to facilitate better access to financial resources for the growth and development of the regional agricultural sector.

Under these circumstances, apart from official aid for agricultural development by IFIs on favorable terms for governments, local agro-client-oriented commercial banks should review their interest rate policy and the terms and conditions of agricultural loans so that they are aligned with the market and the prices of their competitors. In addition, consideration should be given to improving the liquidity of loans secured by agricultural land and offering long-term fixed rates to farmers and ranchers. And if necessary, governments should consider establishing agricultural development banks with branches closer to farming communities for assistance in key and critical areas like 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 farming households in Guyana own five acres or less. He pointed out that 58% of agricultural 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 has suggested that every 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 IFIs, local commercial banks and regional bodies like the Institute for Private Enterprise Development (IPED) is needed.

And while calls that “the time is right”, that “a change of mentality is needed”, that “the removal of trade barriers is an integral part of better integration in CARICOM” and that ” investment in maritime transport is necessary for food security’ are resounding and commendable, the commitment to reduce the food import bill by 25% by 2025, in just three years, is very ambitious and financially questionable. But the most fundamental question is whether the long-awaited vision fits into a national development strategy of a Member State?

These fundamental issues aside, one wonders what has been done to address the issue at previous meetings of COTED and the Council for Community and Foreign Relations (COFCOR) as well as at the annual Farm Week meetings of the CARICOM, at meetings of the Caribbean Agricultural Health and Safety (CAHFSA), the Caribbean Agricultural Development Institute (CARDI), the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CCFP), the CARICOM Competition Commission, meetings of the heads of CARDI, FAO and IICA and meetings of the regional transport commission. Were they all asleep at the wheel?

Between 2003 and 2006, intra-regional trade saw a multitude of disputes among CARICOM member states. This has manifested itself in Suriname’s ban on logs from Guyana, the imposition of non-tariff barriers by Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname on exports of rice from Guyana as well as Trinidad and the Grenadines Tobago’s ban on our beef and poultry products using sanitary and phytosanitary measures to do so. COTED was unable to resolve disputes due to the pervasive relationship between host governments and private sector entities in the countries involved.

But it is not just market access for industrial products that has given rise to disputes among CARICOM member states; market access for agricultural products produced in the region as well as the steady stream of requests for waivers of the common external tariff (CET) to allow the import of agricultural products from extra-regional sources have been a major problem within the market unique to the region and economy. Market access restrictions for agricultural and non-agricultural products have taken the form of tariff and non-tariff measures, quantitative restrictions, non-binding tariffs, subsidies or domestic support measures, subsidies exports, special safeguard measures in agriculture, technical barriers, including mandatory technical regulations such as sanitary and phytosanitary measures as well as standards continue to affect intra-regional trade.

At the heart of these disputes are the abuse of Common External Tariff (CET) waivers, the interpretation and application of World Trade Organization (WTO) laws, the role of COTED, transparency in the application of the provisions and procedures of the Revised Treaty of Chaguramas. (RTC) and variations from the fundamental objective of CARICOM; create a protected market for producers and manufacturers. Guyana has been no angel among regional CET violators. In the past, we have sparked disputes over the 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’ve lost.

Recently, allegations have been made that Guyana’s local content law contradicts the BTI law and WTO law. This view has been contradicted by an assertion that Guyana may choose to opt out of its treaty obligations if circumstances dictate that such action be taken to protect the country’s oil and gas industry from any hostile takeover. by Trinidadians. Assurances were then given that “Guyana will respect its treaty obligations”. It is in this context that the GCCI recently stoked further controversy by issuing a press release declaring its opposition to the GOG signing a memorandum of understanding with the government of Trinidad and Tobago which it claims , targets agriculture, energy and security. GCCI’s disagreement with GOG was based on the argument that too many non-tariff barriers to Guyanese exports to Trinidad are still in place and that they constitute obstacles to the growth and development of Guyanese businesses.

Questions were raised regarding the timeliness and usefulness of the GCCI statement and whether it accurately reflected the views of GCCI members. One newspaper went so far as to say that the House’s position was “irrelevant” and that the organization was engaging in “advertising hoarding”. I do not agree. The GCCI statement was timely and helpful. Who drew this “line” and in whose interest are the questions to be answered.

Yours faithfully,

Clement J. Rohee