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Hinterland comes to the foreground for agricultural investment potential

Interview - November 20, 2015

Guyana’s Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder outlines the next frontiers, challenges and investment opportunities for agriculture development in the country, the strategic importance of Guyana to Brazil, and the vast untapped potential of its hinterland.



President David Granger stated during the opening of the parliament, “the state of the nation requires visionary leadership. We have assembled a cabinet of men and women who can provide this leadership”. Can you please share with us your views regarding the “new Guyana” that will come under this new leadership?

Perhaps I better start off by letting you see where we are now, where perhaps we need to go, as against where we intend to go. Guyana is a country with some 83,000 square miles, 214 square kilometers; it is larger than England. However, 80% or more of the population lives on a piece of land approximately 250 miles long and 30 miles wide. This area is at, or below, sea level, so therefore it is subject to the ravages of climate change. As a matter of fact, during the just past rainy season, the long rains we call it, between June and July, a period of less than 30 days, we had two of the highest ever rainfall days in the recorded history of this country. On one occasion we had 10 inches in 13 hours, on another occasion we had 8.5 inches or thereabouts in 20 hours or so. Our drainage system is designed to accommodate no more than two inches in 24 hours, so there was extensive flooding. Therefore, due to climate change, we really have to look at moving our main economic base from this narrow coastal strip into the vast interior that we have.

This, basically, is the focus of our general agricultural policy. Now while sugar and rice will continue to play their part, diversification and movement of people really necessitate new economic activities. The next frontiers for agriculture development in our country are the two large areas of savannah land that we are earmarking for our agriculture trust: the intermediate savannah, which is immediately behind the coastal strip, and the Rupununi Savannah in the southern part of the country. We have chosen these locations for agricultural development because Guyana is highly forested and the mood of the world at present considers clearing of forestland for agricultural purposes as contraindicated. You really need to preserve your forests. Indeed, and in fact we can probably get carbon credits from not over-harvesting our forests. I think we are getting some credits from Norway at present and we hope to exploit the rest of the globe along those lines.

We’ll see what comes out of the COP meetings in Paris in December. We therefore, want to diversify our agriculture. Not away from rice and sugar but to diversify it into other areas apart from rice and sugar. We have beef production in which we are already self-sufficient and we wish to expand that into a big export sector. We have been declared free of foot and mouth disease by the OIE, the international organization of epizootics. That’s a big plus for us. We want to look and expand our orchard crops, citrus and others. We also want to expand into corn and soybean, as we do import these commodities, which are used extensively in the poultry industry production of which will save a tremendous amount of foreign exchange. Of course along those lines we will also be encouraging agro-tourism. We have some of the most beautiful savannahs probably in the world. In a nutshell that is where we are going. We’ve had a lot of interest being shown by the Brazilians particularly.

Not only does northern Brazil need a short access to the Atlantic Ocean to export their commodities, but they’re also very keen on increasing production in certain areas which are complimentary to our thinking. In short, Brazil has a big market in soybean and they export a lot to the northern hemisphere particularly the US, but they do it at one time of the year, when the northern climates have their winter, southern, Brazil, has its summer. Therefore, they export at one time of the year because the reverse occurs at other times of the year. If they can exploit their northern territories and invest in Guyana, they can produce soybeans for export all year round and we consider them a good partner for it. Their problem is that anything they produce in their northern territories has to go about 1,500 miles down to Manaus on the Amazon. Then another 1,500 miles to get to the mouth of the Amazon before moving across the Atlantic Ocean to northern markets. The journey through Guyana, 300 miles, is much much shorter. That makes Guyana infinitely important to Brazil. In a nutshell, that’s where we are, where our vision is.


Last month, agriculture officials from the 15 member states of Caricom met here in Georgetown to gauge progress towards making the region self-sufficient in food. Guyana is the only Caricom country that enjoys food security. The Secretary General opined that the agriculture section needs modernization and the infusion of younger workers. How can Caricom work in a more synchronized way to achieve the much-desired self-sufficiency?

Well currently Guyana is the lead country in Caricom for agriculture at the level of the heads of government. Our president is the lead minister of agriculture and therefore I can be considered the lead minister among the Caricom Ministers of Agriculture because of our current position and by Caricom agreement. In fact I have just come back from the Inter-American Board of Agriculture meeting in Mexico where I was able to interact with about 10 of the 15 ministers of agriculture in Caricom. We had a good separate bilateral session at that meeting. We do appreciate that we are capable of supplying Caricom with just about all of its food needs, including meat and dairy products which are the biggest imports financially into the region. The problem among Caricom countries is the question of market access – in the sense of the physical ability to get products from Guyana to Barbados or other members of Caricom.

It’s easier to get things into individual Caricom countries via Miami than by direct means, largely because there are no shipping lines. We need to look at that carefully. Perhaps we could adopt the kind of movement that islands in the Mediterranean, fast hydrofoil boats that can take people and products around the islands. It’s something that we need to look at.

One of our problems in the Caribbean is that we have a relatively small internal market. Among all the English-speaking West Indies places, including Belize and Guyana, we only have about a market of 7 million people. Haiti has come on board recently, that gives another 7 to 8 million people, but still you’re not looking at a vast market to go after for people who would like to consider linking us up transport-wise. Transport security is important all around, and we want to play our part.


40% of Guyana’s export earnings come from agriculture which speaks for itself of the importance of exports in this sector, Minister of Finance Minister Jordan told us that the government expected for the next five years a 25% increase in the exports of non-traditional agricultural products. How is the government working to promote the non-traditional agricultural products, and what are the main objectives of the government?

Many countries are realizing that they have to conserve on their food import bill. Barbados has gone a far way in merging, using cassava flour with imported wheat to make bread. Now this is an important step. They are saving up to 40% what they are importing by substituting it with a Caricom product, which we can produce tons of in Guyana, cassava. Then, of course you have plantain flour that can fit in and things of that nature which could make a big difference in the import substitution bill within the Caricom area.

As I said, moving inland we have other commodities to look at, such as soybean, citrus, and of course beef and dairy products, things of that nature. Hopefully that will increase. It might not increase the role agriculture contributes to the economy percentage-wise because don’t forget there are other sectors that are developing like gold and mining. If even we hold our own at 40%, that’ll be good.


The United States continues to be one of Guyana’s most significant trading partners. According to the World Bank, Guyana exports around $500 billion to the United States. The US tends to have a protectionist approach towards its agriculture sector. What opportunity do you see for the Guyanese agriculture to increase exports to the US?

There’s a difference between tropical agriculture and northern agriculture. In places like Guyana, ex-colonies like Guyana, we are blessed largely in the tropical belt with many more commodities than you are exposed to up north. Your food sources are based on corn and soybeans, apples and potatoes and few other staples, and that’s it. Well we have those items which we import from you, plus we have our rice, we have our dasheen, our plantains, you name it we have it.

Now Guyana and the Caribbean in general are countries with probably some of the lowest population growth rates in the world. That is because we unfortunately have lost a lot of our people to other countries in the north, which are America, Canada, and England. This could be a niche market as there are more Guyanese abroad than are resident locally. While the population of the Guyanese diaspora is well over a million persons living abroad, we have been stuck at 750,000 for the last three years. We haven’t increased because of emigration. Arguably you can say we’ve been subsidizing the developed countries with our brains. 80% of all our university graduates end up in North America or Canada, which is not a good thing since it limits our developmental prospects. Going back to the markets, this creates a sizable market. As a matter of fact, we are already exporting quite a lot, because it’s an ethnic market we’re talking about, and a growing ethnic market, which is a good niche market for us.

I mean our problem with getting into more markets is our smallness. As an example, we’re talking with Mexico. Mexico imports 1.8 million tons of rice a year. We don’t produce 1.8 million. We can probably produce about 600,000 tons a year. We’ve had problems in the past dealing with the IMF and people like that who come with a fixed agenda of things you have to do, you know, devalue your currency, you do all sorts of things, which in many respects have not helped the development of this economy. Largely because the theory behind devaluation is that it makes your products more attractive to people abroad because now it’s cheaper. The trouble is if you’re a small Brazil, that can work as you are “price takers” and not “price setters” such as, say Brazil.

Brazil is the biggest producer of coffee in the world. If they devalue they cut the cost of coffee and therefore the world market price of coffee. Because of our costs, our exportability, we are price takers. We don’t set prices. We don’t set prices in rice or sugar or any commodity because we’re small. Devaluing Guyana’s currency doesn’t help. It creates more misery at home. However, we have the diaspora market, and that’s a market that we could develop.

Then of course we have our tourism products. Tourism from our standpoint is unlike the other more traditional tourism. We have eco-tourism and even agricultural tourism. For example the intermediate savannah is probably one of the most beautiful places you will find; the rolling hills of improved pastures and cattle and so on.

Our Coastal Water Conservancies Lama, Boerasire and Tapakuma Mainstay are very attractive places, and people have gone there to do fishing. These could be expanded as agri-tourism sites.


October is Guyana’s month of agriculture, including World Food Day on October 16. This year the event was held under the theme ‘Social Protection and Agriculture: Breaking the Cycle of Rural Poverty.’ How do initiatives like this help to create awareness of the agricultural sector?

Well Guyana is self-sufficient in food. If you stopped all the imports of foods, of wheat and potatoes we will live.

Our level of poverty, if you look at the millennium development goals, is not very high and largely it’s limited to many parts of the interior, like where the indigenous people are and a few more urban pockets. But in rural Guyana there is generally no problem. While they might have the lowest per capital income in the country, they are not starving. Real poverty exists largely in the inner city of places like Georgetown. That can’t be large because Georgetown is only 250,000 people; you know it’s not like New York with 12 million people. We aren’t poor in that sense, so food security I think we have. Poverty, we’re trying to continue to eliminate. I would think we could probably do to it within 10 years.


Agriculture is certainly the sector which is most directly affected by climate change and environmental factors. Therefore it’s very important to ensure that its development comes hand in hand with friendly environmental practices. This year the world leaders will be meeting at the COP21 conference in Paris, where they will be addressing environmental and climate change issues. We will have a special coverage during the COP21 and would like to hear from you. How does this ministry work to promote growth and environment protection at the same time?

Guyana as it stands now has most of its population on the coastal belt, below sea level. We are considered in a sense among what you call the Small Island Development States, largely because of our climatic difficulties on the coast. This is one of the reasons why we want to move inland. The beauty of that is since we do not have much agriculture development in the inland areas, we are in a position to do things the proper way. Because we have lots of land, it is not a constraint forcing extremes and land maximizing land utilization techniques. Our cattle could be all grass fed. Organic cattle, without having to use hormones and so on to boost production and productivity in a lot of those ways, we’re trying to do things for our crops such as more organic control for pests and diseases and things of that nature.


The key to unlocking Guyana’s agriculture potential is investment and the application of science and technology. How can the government create synergies with the US in the agricultural sector? What opportunities does the agriculture sector in Guyana offer to US investors?

In terms of investment, we can see how opening the intermediate savannahs, could be attractive to foreign local investors you might say. The diaspora could be attracted; in short they can come here and invest and get our hinterland agriculture developed. Guyanese can bring know-how and use our commodities to get into the American market. Some interest is already being shown by some Guyanese. Places like Miami are investing in mills to take our paddy so that they can mill it and sell it to people over there. We are looking at things like aromatic rice, which has a very good market certainly in the Far East, China, and such places, and even growing now in the US. That kind of rice fetches very high prices.

We produce some of the best rums in the world. We have won many competitions overseas for rum, but when asked to supply half a million gallons of it a month we are unable to comply.

Those are some of the cons of being small. We produce good commodities but really it’ll take time before we can get up to the levels to really be competitive on the world stage. That’s because of the small volumes we are capable of producing at present.


Countries like Mexico have understood that even agriculture can be branded, for example avocados. Wherever in the world people drink our rum or eat an avocado, they know the origin of this. Is the ministry looking into some kind of branding of the product of Guyana?

Yes we have to come up with something completely new. I really can’t think of anything, apart from our rums, our 10 year old rums and things like that, which could perhaps be sold at a high price.

Unless of course, we create a new taste for commodities. Many years ago when the US took over Hawaii as one of its states, it considered what to do with Hawaii. Which is basically a tropical state. They looked and saw that Hawaii could produce pineapples and papayas and they did a tremendous marketing job so that now Hawaii exports pineapples and papayas to Europe and all over the world, of course, the US has the capacity to do something like that. It’s difficult for a small country, however in time we probably could get there. We have the land mass, we just don’t have the people.


You have more than 35 years of experience in the agriculture industry. You also help assistants in the ministry of agriculture in the late 60s and early 70s. How did you feel when you were offered the opportunity to lead this ministry and what is that one goal you want the ministry to achieve under your leadership?

I’d like to see systems put back into place. We have suffered a lot over the last 20 years. Systems have broken down. There really has been no particular interest in hinterland development. It was all, for political reasons, centered around sugar and rice, which was very important to the previous administration. I was very unhappy that things that had developed under my tenure and others just collapsed. My aim is to get back a strong Ministry of Agriculture that could get back into pointing the development of this country agriculturally in the right direction, which it has lacked over the last 23 years.


Next year, 2016, Guyana will be celebrating it’s 50th independence anniversary and it’s a perfect time to celebrate and communicate what Guyana has achieved in this 50 years and make the international community aware of Guyana’s opportunities. How would you like the American audience to perceive Guyana?

This year we have launched what we call a National Tree Planting effort, during out agriculture month, on the 3rd of October, and we are trying to get every community properly landscaped through planting of fruits trees. Of course in some areas you have to have ornamentals. To make Guyana really into a green economy not only in terms of our production activities but also in terms of looking around and seeing that there’s green and beautiful and that’s how I would like to be seen as a nation. That in itself could produce a fair amount of food, like bread fruit.

We are striving to make Bartica, a township in one our interior locations, the main breadfruit source for the country. If every person in Bartica planted one breadfruit tree, we talking about a million pounds of breadfruit a year. It’s along those lines we want to replicate this across the country so that we’re green all over and people who come here can see that the place is landscaped with fruits in abundance.