It's clear from the attendance alone at Guyana’s three-day Agri-Investment Forum and Expo earlier this month that regional leaders believe it’s a do-or-die scenario when it comes to boosting agricultural production amid ongoing global supply uncertainties.
Countries represented at the event included Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.
Also a sign of serious intent was the convening of a series of bilateral meetings and events surrounding the forum. One such instance was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on renewed and enhanced co-operation signed by this country's Prime Minister and Guyana’s president Dr Irfaan Ali.
The problem, however, is we’ve seen such grand events and carefully stage-managed ceremonies before.
What has changed now to inspire confidence that this time around real change is going to happen?
The entire region will be looking, in the coming months, for the details of agreements signed and evidence of such agreements being meaningfully implemented.
One place to start might be for each regional actor to secure national consensus across the political spectrum on the issues surrounding trade and agricultural production. Too often, leaders sign documents and pose for photographs, but then there is a change of administration, and the new government must do the same thing again, the same project appears in that year's budget speech, almost as a copy-and-paste, and then we repeat the cycle, while nothing gets done.
Caricom, as a key co-ordinating agency, must play a role in steering us in the right direction. Equally, leaders must supply the political will needed not only to take advantage of areas of co-operation but to also ensure continuity of policy regardless of who is in power.
We are talking about the region’s ability to feed itself, after all.
Attention should also be paid to the barriers that have hindered co-operation in the past.
In welcoming the signing of the MOU between TT and Guyana, the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association noted its belief that “the continued relationship between both governments is promising as we seek to resolve trade barriers.”
Such barriers include those which led the Georgetown Chamber of Industry and Commerce to warn the Guyanese government against signing the MOU, pending the removal of these trade obstacles.
According to the Georgetown Chamber, Guyanese businesses are hindered by non-tariff barriers that impose limitations on how a product may be manufactured, handled or advertised, and quotas of products that may be sold in a market. For example, a 1930s law seemingly limits the transport of honey within one mile of TT and this law was invoked in 2015 in one action brought by customs officials against a freight company, resulting in a US$3,000 fine.
Until such finer issues are ironed out, this month’s proceedings will be grandstanding.
And concomitant with addressing these things is the need for shifts in consumer habits.
Removing trade barriers is important, but so too is getting people to eat local, to change their diets and also to embrace small-scale food production.
With a regional food import bill in excess of US$6 billion, we have little choice.