By Marion V. Ali
Three container loads of imported ‘Grade A’ rice from Guyana will remain locked up in storage at the Big Creek port in Stann Creek for Christmas, despite earnest efforts by the importer, businessman Jack Charles (Jitendra Chawla) to gain access to unload and start retailing the product.
Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Jose Alpuche said publicly and in clear terms this week that Guyanese rice does not represent fair trade with local rice producers.
“The reality is that rice in Guyana is heavily subsidized and we don’t offer subsidies to our large scale commercial producers here. So what would come in from Guyana would represent an unfair trading advantage.”
Director General of Foreign Trade, Dr. Leroy Almendarez made reference to the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, saying the agreement protects all member countries.
“The major objective of this Treaty is economic development for all members’ states; not for one, but for all. There are also sensitive industries and sensitive industries protected under the revised Treaty. Belize is LDC, which means Lesser Developed Country. You have MDC [More Developed Countries], of which Guyana is one. But we must understand here that Belize and Guyana has no dispute. … I was at COTED (Council for Trade and Economic Development), recently…There is a process that it goes through. The member state must be allowed to respond and you respond and then the discussion takes place or then you solve it bilaterally. We met with the head of Guyana Rice Development Board, we met with the minister of trade…and they assured us that it would be a government to government issue…if we are not opened to give market access to that rice, they will not impose it on us.”
Sergio Garcia, the technical consultant for Charles’ RC Imports and a former Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Trade, pointed out that the signal Belize is sending to a fellow CARICOM country and the rest of CARICOM has got to be unwelcome treatment, particularly since Belize is preparing to start increasing trade with some of its CARICOM colleagues in the near future.
“If the Guyanese were to take the same approach, like what we are suggesting to protecting our national industry, let’s say that all the countries in CARICOM – oh Belize wants to protect, let us do the same thing. What happens? Our products will start to stay here. There is much more corn producers than rice producers in this country. This will put a black eye on our trade,” he said.
But Almendarez debunked that notion, saying he has been having frequent meetings with the CARICOM Trade technocrats and there was no problem with Guyana over rice.
“It does not give us a black eye nor a bad reputation. Let me just give you some examples: Grenada has tried to get honey into Trinidad for the longest time. Grenada’s honey is still not into Trinidad, because they are talking about quality and standards, etc. We have tried to get our poultry into Trinidad, we have tried to get some of our other products into other markets within CARICOM and they are still not there,” he said.
Almendarez pointed to the fact that Belize is self-sufficient in rice production, but Charles argues that he is importing only 20 percent of the country’s demands, which is allowed under the same Treaty. It is his view that Belizeans should have an option to better rice for a cheaper price if they so desire.
Charles was the man who, in 2014 when a flood rendered Belize short of rice, revealed that the Government had imported three million pounds of Guyanese rice, labelled it as a product of Belize, and continued to sell it for the same price as the more expensive Belizean rice.
Charles, who has indicated that if he must take the matter to court he will, is proposing to retail the rice for 69 cents per pound, still cheaper than Belize’s ‘Grade C’ (30 percent broken rice, which as of December 23rd should start to sell for 90 cents per pound.) But even so, Alpuche says while this is the new price, some merchants may sell for more.
“We’re not telling you that you have to sell rice for 90 cents. We’re telling you that the maximum you should pay for it is 90 cents,” said Alpuche.
Local farmers produce around 21 million pounds of rice each year – an amount which is sufficient for local consumption.
Meanwhile, Guyana’s rice exports increased by six percent up to October this year, compared with the same period last year, but it has earned less on the market because of a significant drop in the world market price and also because one of its larger business partners, Venezuela, has stopped buying rice from there.
In 2014, almost 30 percent of Guyana’s rice exports were to Venezuela, for which the country and the farmers were receiving higher than above world market prices for the rice and paddy. Guyana earned US $480 per metric ton of paddy from Venezuela. For white rice, it now receives only between US $390 and US $398 per metric ton, compared to US $780 received for the same amount from Venezuela last year.
Venezuela had notified Guyana from 2014 that it would no longer import its rice, but the loss of this market was only made public when the government changed this past May. Since then, Guyana has endeavoured to look for new markets. Mexico is one of a few countries that have made agreements to import its rice. With an import demand for rice at a million pounds per year, Mexico is now one of Guyana’s larger business partners.