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The agriculture sector and its contribution to national security in oil rich Guyana

Dr H Arlington D Chesney

In recent weeks, there has been a rapid escalation of the situation along the Guyana/Venezuela border. This escalation, which originates from Venezuela, seems to be due to the commercial discovery of large quantities of oil and gas by the Exxon-led Consortium and exacerbated by Guyana’s recent awarding of exploratory Contracts in what Venezuela deems to be “in an undelimited maritime area.”

There has been a plethora of reports in the Guyana media, which, in summary, describes the Venezuelan actions, particularly the Five Question Referendum (5QR), as reckless, arrogant, belligerent and even globally illegal. These actions have resulted in a clear and present danger to national territorial integrity and security: a situation that requires an “All of Nation Approach” NOT an “All of Society” or “All of Government” approach.

In this context, the agricultural sector, as a key economic driver, must play a significant role in contributing to the successful maintenance of national security whilst, simultaneously, minimising the possibility of Guyana experiencing the resource curse. The latter is particularly critical, with Guyana reportedly having recoverable oil and gas in excess of 11 billion barrels of oil equivalent (boe) and a projected daily extraction rate of 600,000 boe by the end of 2023.

There have been calls to counter the Venezuelan offensive by initiatives, such as, a) capping the numbers of Venezuelan refugees/immigrants entering Guyana and perhaps confining them primarily to coastal areas, b) diplomatic overtures, and c) citizen education. Apart from the last named, these are basically short-term in nature and are unlikely to provide durable long-term solutions.

Venezuela’s fake claims are continuing to be of a long-term nature. I recall that, working in Latin America during the 20th century, I was shown a Venezuelan map identifying the Essequibo territory of Guyana as Zona en Reclamación. Unfortunately, it was shrugged off as a “rant of a madman”. However, this conclusion was incorrect as Venezuela maintained, even intensified this stance with its 5QR which inter alia seeks national agreement that the International Court of Justice has no jurisdiction over this issue. A position that was restated by its President as reported in an OilNow, November 09, 2023 article.

The agricultural sector, in forming the base for a settlement programme, provides an opportunity, if conducted properly, for an everlasting solution. There were two unsuccessful settlement initiatives in the 1970s following the closure of the then Manganese Company in Region 1 (Barima-Waini) along the Matthews Ridge/Port Kaituma Road. The first was the monolithic Jones Town. The reasons for its failure are well documented.

The second was the settlement of mainly coastal nationals, many of whom had worked with the defunct Manganese company. The major reasons for its lack of success included a) the mandatory requirement for disparate persons to farm cooperatively, b) the lack of housing near or on the farm lots, and c) the failure to develop an acceptable family community environment which should have included health, education and recreation facilities. Causes b) and c) were directly related to inadequate financial resources. Whilst these settlements were planned with socioeconomic objectives, at official levels there were always the undertones of border security.

The planning for the proposed agriculturally based settlements will aim to ensure that all components required for success are in place. This will necessitate the availability of adequate levels of human, technical and financial resources. The last name is now possible with the projected abundant oil and gas revenues.

The location, size, demography, and socio-economy of Region 1 dictated the need for focused settlement. It’s the only part of Guyana abutting Venezuela. It consists of approximately 2 million hectares with a population at the last national census (2012) of 26,941 located in three sub-regions- Mabaruma, where the administrative Center resides, Moruca and Matakai. The major economic activities are mining, including the recently reopened manganese mining facility, logging and cultivation of many short-term crops and tree crops. There are only two Secondary Schools.

Region 1 is extremely sparsely populated, a situation which is exacerbated by a recent announcement by an eminent government official that there are an estimated 22,000 Venezuelans in Guyana. There also appears to be limited infrastructure to facilitate the enjoyment of an acceptably modern quality of life. On the positive side, it is blessed by large areas of low-lying rich alluvial soil along with high-altitude plateaus. A wide range of tropical and high-valued subtropical crops can naturally be cultivated here.

It’s recommended that, initially, two modern communities be established in Moruca and Matakai which seemingly have the least physical and human infrastructural amenities in the region. They are also the most sparsely populated. The proposed settlements must be complete with all necessary facilities and institutions required for achieving an acceptable quality of family and community life and management of same.

The choice of agricultural commodities can be determined once each location has been finalised. However, the prevailing edaphic conditions are such that the majority of chosen enterprises will include commodities that are within the 19 identified as important for achieving the Caricom Heads’ target of reducing regional food imports by 25 percent by 2025. That is, there will be consistency with regional policy imperatives led by Guyana.

Further, all commodities will be produced with processes in place to embody the entire value chain. Following the very successful Costa Rican Dos Pinos model, primary production can be conducted individually with processing and marketing done collectively. This will be consistent with the ongoing governmental Programme of providing processing plants within selected communities. The ownership and governance relationships should be agreed upon prior to commissioning.

The populations will be polylithic or very diverse with a special space being kept for the existing inhabitants. The settlers must be trained or experienced professionals and artisans, as required by the previously selected industries, institutions and technical, physical and human infrastructure. They may come from recent tertiary, secondary and vocational graduates along with practicing technicians and successful entrepreneurs.

The government may also wish to be locational specific in its current offer of land to citizens of Caricom member states, with preference going to those countries with topographies similar to that in Region 1. To maximise the possibility of communal togetherness, each potential settler could be subject to a modified psychometric assessment.

Although seemingly autocratic, there should be, following the successful Singapore model, an agreed percentage of each type of proposed settler needed to ensure the successful development of a sustainable (economic, social/equitable, environmental and institutional) community.

A short note on two critical facilities required for the sustainability of these settlements, namely, electricity and education.

With respect to electricity, in keeping with the Government’s Low Carbon Development Strategy, the majority of electricity requirements should be obtained from renewable energy sources, particularly solar. This could be individual or public systems.

With respect to education, both children and adults are to be included. For the former, the usual STEM curriculum would be pursued. However, for both groups, conversational Spanish and Guyana’s history, especially that relative to the current controversy, is to be tenaciously pursued. These groups will form Guyana’s first “ears to the ground”, its first source of unfiltered intelligence.

The above provides an outline of an approach by which the agricultural sector could contribute significantly to Guyana maintaining its national sovereignty. Naturally, significant human, technical, physical and financial resources in its planning and implementation will be required. Particular attention must be given to the requirements needed to ensure the development of sustainable agricultural industries as well as community administration and management.

In addition, and most importantly, it must obtain the emotional and psychological buy-in of all Guyanese at home and in the various Diasporas as it would call for sacrifice from those within and outside of Region 1.

However, as said from the onset, this threat must be met with an “All of Nation” approach as these Venezuelan threats are the most limiting factor to the maintenance of Guyana as is now defined. The words of famed Guyanese lyricist, Dave Martin, “Not a Blade of Grass” must reverberate throughout.



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