Are we wasting foreign currency? – by Adam Harris

Are we wasting foreign currency?

Adam Harris

Guyana spends a lot of money on food imports, although the country is considered one of the more self-sufficient countries in the region. It can actually feed itself but then again, with disposable income people tend to seek a few luxuries.

I still remember the hullabaloo when there was what was called import restriction. The foods in this category were potatoes, sardines, salt fish, split peas and other lentils and of course, wheat flour. Needless to say, the hue and cry that went up was deafening. People started to complain that they were being starved.  

I still hear that flour was an ethnic necessity without which people would die. The government of the day was trying to teach import substitution or as the late Dr Ptolemy Reid said, import replacement. The cassava flour experiment was a failure, because the people never put their minds to it.

However, the canned foods and the salt fish were indeed replaced, that to this day, Guyana is in a position to export its own salted fish. Most people alive today do not know the taste of the imported cod. Potatoes are easily replaced with local ground provisions, but there are the few who insist on this foreign product.

Just this past week the news came that some Caribbean countries had placed a ban on corned beef from Brazil. The contention was that rotten beef was being used to produce this canned food that we spend millions of dollars on. The culprit is said to be brands such as Anglo. But I happened to notice that there was a brand of Grace corned beef that said ‘Made in Brazil.’

The talk is the high exchange rate. Businessmen want huge sums of foreign currency, and I am willing to bet that most of this money is to buy foreign foods that are not necessities. But if the buyers insist on eating these things, then they will have to pay even more. The fallout will be on the government, because people are going to be calling for more money since their pay will not allow them to sustain the foreign habit.

I was one who was weaned off the canned food. I go to the market place and I buy the greens and vegetables on display. I go to the butchery and I buy fresh cuts. I am a lover of fish; I can eat fish seven days a week.
Incidentally, in the metropolis, fish is perhaps the most expensive meat, alongside the crustaceans. In Guyana, fish is one of the cheapest meats. The only foreign input in fish is the petrol. Many of my friends eat local, perhaps because we grew up hearing the slogan, ‘be local buy local’.

I still remember parents feeding their babies of plantain flour. They boiled it then strained it so that the baby’s stomach would not have to work a lot. These days we buy Gerber’s because we could afford it. No more cassava porridge or even plantain porridge, because our taste is for cereal. But even then, we made our own cereal from rice. That is a dead art.
In those days the lesson was that when we buy local we were creating employment for the local farmers. We do the opposite when we buy foreign foods, but as former colonials we feel obligated to put money into foreign pockets.

Last week the Government Analyst Food and Drug Department put a clamp on a large shipment of tuna that appeared to be a knock-off from the Brunswick brand. I didn’t even know that we imported tuna in tins. I can imagine what else is being imported, using up foreign currency.

Products made in China are all stamped big and bold—Made in China. This tuna that the Analyst stopped was made in PRC. The importer said that it stood for People’s Republic of China. I am looking to see if there are any other Made in China products with this PRC label.

We should have been further ahead, because about four decades ago we tried setting up canneries. These failed because of the paucity of electricity and a lack of will.

I hear the clamour for foreign currency, and I wonder whether the bulk is for the foreign foods. Four or five years ago, the Caricom Heads of Government voted that Guyana chair the agricultural sub-committee, because the region wanted to cut back on the US$6 billion food import bill. That is a lot of money and even if Guyana could position itself to get US$2billion of that money, one can imagine what it would do to the economy. Yet as a people we appear to be prepared to buy just about everything that the foreign country makes.

I could not help but notice that one airline was seeking an exchange rate of $250 to the United States dollar. This could only happen because our economic situation is such that we can travel at will. For a poor, struggling people with a population of fewer than a million people, we have at least six airlines. We are doing well.

Someone recently said to me that the Cubans come every week and spend at least US$3 million. I do not know if that money gets into the system, but it must be around somewhere. I do know when Guyanese came from abroad to enjoy the Golden Jubilee they came with so much money that the exchange rate was drastically lowered.

In fact, the cambios were hard pressed to buy. Things were good. I do not know how the situation is so different, given that foreign currency is still coming into the country in more than drops. It has to be something else.

One school of thought is that there are people who are listening to the political opposition and trying their utmost to make the government look bad. And while this is happening, there are those who are saying that the government is at fault.

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  • demerwater  On 03/31/2017 at 5:55 am

    If I may be permitted an edit. “These failed because of …. a lack of will”.
    I remember clearly the conversation after lunch. Seeram Ramdeen, an engineer; Kurt Wuest, a chemist; and myself, an agriculturist; were putting together a canning factory.
    This factory would be different in that the front end would be changeable to prepare the different raw materials say – pineapples, golden apples or breadfruit – according to the season – the engineer’s domain. The processing and canning would be the chemist’s forte; and the flow of high quality raw material would fall to the agriculturist. It would be sited near an abundant source of fresh water and accessible road transport.
    The Linden Soesdyke highway was only a line on a map in the Lands and Mines Dept. I know this because I was looking for a site where the highway would be closest to a creek.
    Every site I fingered was “allocated”.
    When I asked what we had to do to be allocated an area, I was told, “Bring me a letter from the PM”.
    That was the moment when we thought “Forget it!”
    The FCH program sticks in my memory as the most ambitious and relevant program for self-sufficiency. What a pity it was that the little tin gods dotting the landscape were more motivated by self interested rather than patriotism.

    • Albert  On 03/31/2017 at 11:42 pm

      These ideas have been around before:
      Questions: how would you have ensure adequate supplies of pineapple etc to meet factory needs.
      – where is the market for canned pineapples etc Forget Guyana…too small.
      – major establish producers could deliver to our ports cheaper than we could produce.
      – who will finance the farming of pineapples, which need much land and time to grow.

  • Kamala Gupta  On 03/31/2017 at 7:59 am

    Guyanese, let it be known that the good local food is best in the world. Living abroad for over fifty years and having eaten food from everywhere, I long for our saltfish, ground provisions, sea food, fresh fish ,shrimps, crabs, plantains, bananas and all the good stuffs that grow from the dear land of Guyana. Let us come together, be happy with our countless blessings , and be aware of the fact that Guyana has a rich and prosperous future ahead. I implore our young people and all, to think how we could participate in an honest and sincere way to work hard and show the world what a powerful country Guyana could be. Blessings to you all dear fellow Guyanese Kamala Persaud Gupta

  • Ron Saywack  On 03/31/2017 at 12:37 pm

    “The (Burnham) government of the day was trying to teach import substitution…” Really?

    In theory, the ban on imported foods, in favour of local substitutes, seemed like a good idea. But the inept Burnham regime, clearly, lacked wisdom, foresight and common sense. It was a classic case of putting the cart before the animal.

    The regime had no substitutes in place before imposing its draconian ban. The ban created great hardships in the country for almost every family. People stood in long line-ups waiting to buy basic, essential food items at outrageous prices. The black market flourished as a result. It turned into a classic case of survival of the fittest (Darwinism).

    One of the costliest consequences of the improvident (be local, buy local) policy was the mass exodus of Guyanese (and the resultant brain drain); and the closing of untold numbers of businesses and farms.

    Instead, what the illegitimate regime could have done to augment the economy and attract foreign currencies, for example, was to invest in tourism, as the other governments in the region had done. Hotel resorts could have been built, and prosper, along the breathtaking coastline, which could have employed thousands.

    The 21-year reign of the Dictator was a poignant, devastating and forgettable chapter in nation’s history and one that should never be repeated. Sadly, the PPP regime also demonstrated a lack of vision as it patently failed to seize crucial opportunities to improve the status quo.

    With oil revenue expected to flow in the near future, perhaps there is still an opportunity for the country to tap into the lucrative tourism and other markets and catch up with its Caribbean neighbours; and, finally, burn the painful memories of the past.

  • demerwater  On 04/01/2017 at 6:43 am

    I remember the wife of my friend and colleague, Lalta Persaud. She offered me a sardine sandwich. After I had enjoyed it, Lalta asked me, “You’re not going to ask where the sardine came from?”
    “I am afraid to ask” I replied. His wife had made it!
    It turns out that this group of women had been trying out various recipes to ‘be local’.
    “The black market flourished as a result.”
    No! The black market flourished as a … consequence!
    I recall the embarrassing exposure of an East Indian merchant in Rose Hall town. He had persuaded his customers that “banning” had caused extreme shortage; and the little produce in the store was obtained at very high cost.
    Well, the police raided his premises one day; and brought out bags of flour that had been hoarded and hidden in the back-store. It was one more example that capitalists and exploiters came in all forms, cultures and colors.
    There was an economist (Dr. Yates, I think) who headed the Development Bank (or some such institution). I was an interested listener as he and Irwin Telfer (another economist) argued which should come first – the ban or the replacement product – one of the most scintillating conversations that I ever listened in on.
    I was there, at the birth of the “meal allowance” – $1.50, paid through petty cash – to Estate employees who were required to work overtime, 2 hours or more.
    Do you know what some of the guys did? They allowed the money to accumulate; and held a grand party at the end of the crop. Their wives were kept completely out of the loop.
    But I had seen another side to the story. The housewife. awake and cooking before “cock-crow”; denying herself and maybe a child or two; so that she could include an extra boiled egg in her husband’s breakfast saucepan – because he might have to work late.
    That dollar and fifty cents would not have bought much; but it would have been a token expression of the good things we were taught – appreciation, love. loyalty devotion etc.
    The few who argued for a ‘voucher’ – to be exchanged for grocery items, at participating merchants – were drowned out in derision.
    In retrospect, the best solution might have been to ban money altogether; but we lesser mortals, have to learn, the hard way, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. 1 Timothy 6:10

  • Ron Saywack  On 04/01/2017 at 7:39 am

    ” “The black market flourished as a result.”

    No! The black market flourished as a … consequence!”

    You obviously did not do too well on the English grammar quiz.

  • demerwater  On 04/01/2017 at 10:06 am

    Indeed! I did much better in vocabulary than in grammar.

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