A Knowledge-based Society
is designated Education Month. It is also Amerindian Heritage Month. The following month, October, will be Agriculture Month.
It is, therefore, an opportune time to reflect on the transformative and complementary roles education and agriculture have played in terms of national development, including that of our Amerindian communities.
After nearly two century of British colonial rule, the country is still predominantly a primary producer of agricultural products, mainly rice and sugar, which continues to be the largest employer of labour and foreign exchange earnings. The manufacturing sector is still largely underdeveloped, which hopefully could change in the foreseeable future if the promise of oil and gas become a reality in a few years time as is widely anticipated.
We run the risk of being affected with the so-called "Dutch Disease" if we make the mistake of neglecting our agriculture sector in anticipation of a booming oil and gas economy, as several other oil producing countries have experienced especially countries that were hitherto predominantly agro-based like ours.
We do not have to suffer from the mistakes of other countries if we are smart enough not to put all our eggs in the oil basket. It would seem, however, that this current administration is bent on downscaling its two backbone industries, namely sugar and rice presumably on the assumption that oil and gas will pick up the slack in terms of revenue shortfall.
Such thinking is at best short- sighted and fails to take into account a number of important variables. The first has to do with employment opportunities, which the agricultural sector provides to those in the rural communities.
Agriculture is largely labour intensive as opposed to oil and gas which in the case of Guyana is offshore and less likely to impact on the local economy in terms of employment generation and currency circulation.
In any event, it seems more than likely that the bulk of the revenues will be siphoned off and sent overseas except for the payment of royalties and taxes on oil revenues.
The second factor is the likely increase in the prices of local produce and the overall cost of living due to declining agricultural output. The closure of estates and the decline in farming would lead to population drifts from rural to urban areas, which will put pressure on the limited available housing and push up the cost of rentals. Prostitution and other social ills are likely to increase as rural economies contract due to the downsizing and eventual closure of several sugar estates.
The emergence of an oil economy can be both a bless- ing and a curse, depending on how it is managed and controlled. The traditional sectors should not be supplanted, but be supplemented by using the oil money to create a knowledge based economy. There should be greater emphasis on research and development and skills training, not only to facilitate the oil sector, but all the other sectors, including agriculture and mining.
All regions of the country should benefit from oil revenues, including the Amerindian communities by way of significant upgrades of the physical and social infrastructure. The government should seriously consider the construction of a technical and vocational training centre in Region Nine with residen- tial facilities to accommodate students from other hinterland regions.
As mentioned earlier, oil could be good or bad depending on how the revenues are utilized and whose interests are being served. This is why there has to be full transparency and accountability of this resource.
The people of Guyana are the main stakeholders of this new and emerging sector and it is only fair that they get their fair share of the benefits that could be generated from oil.
The current administration for its part should desist from hiding under the fig leaf of legal technicalities and instead allow for full disclosure on the ramifications of the contract with Exxon Mobil.