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Country profile - Guyana

guyana

Guyana is a country forced by history to have two personas: part of the South American landmass, it has had longstanding relations with its neighbours Surinam, Brazil and Venezuela. But, because of its long associations with Britain, the country is most often considered part of the Caribbean and has been treated as such by the EEC, which includes Guyana as a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of countries with which it has had preferential trade and other agreements under the Lomé and Cotonou economic treaties. Which way Guyana should look is a key to future development.

Facing the Caribbean Sea with Venezuela to the west and Surinam to the east, Guyana is far larger than most of the Caribbean islands yet suffers many of the same challenges: a small population, difficult communications internally and externally, and limited scope for economic development. Historically dependent on the production of sugar as its main source of foreign exchange, and production of rice as its main staple, the years following independence in 1966 have seen a decline in both major and most other crops. Only about 5 per cent of the country, the narrow coastal plain, has been suitable for cultivation and much of this is below sea level, requiring dikes and dams to protect it, and consequently adding to the cost of agricultural production. Much of the hinterland remains forest growing on infertile white sand. The furthest interior, a high-country savanna, is suited to ranching but is also remote, adding to costs for supplies to enter and livestock to leave for market.

Other crops grown in the coastal belt are typical of the region: banana, coconut, cocoa, citrus, tobacco and vegetables. All have had periods of prosperity and decline. In the 1980s there was some diversification into low volume-high value exports, including heart-of-palm and asparagus, but these require fast and dependable cold-chain transport from producer to markets in Europe or the US. Competitors including Brazil, Thailand, Costa Rica and Kenya have proved more successful as suppliers.

Sugar

The major crop pre-independence, sugar production halved in the decade 1978-88 from 324,000 to 168,000 tons. Prior to independence, 85 per cent of sugar produced was exported, making it the largest source of foreign exchange, but nationalization of the industry in the mid-1970s led to a rapid loss of skilled expatriate and national personnel and subsequently to severe management difficulties. The Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco), which took over management of plantations, lacked experience and skills, and it did not have access to foreign currency reserves on which to call for maintenance of plantations and mills during downturns in the industry. High costs of production due to labour unrest, plant disease and inefficient milling have made Guyanese sugar less competitive, and other lower cost producers have boosted world supplies to record levels and driven prices down further.

Most of Guyana's sugar has been destined for the EEC under the favourable terms of the Lome (now Cotonou) Convention. In 1987 the EEC offered $460/ton compared with the world price of $154. But, despite this, production continued to fall and, to meet its EEC quota, Guyana resorted to importing low-cost sugar and re-exporting it to the EEC. In an effort to revitalize the industry, Guysuco closed some factories, reduced acreage and signed a management agreement with Booker and Tate & Lyle, now Booker Tate, two companies synonymous with sugar production throughout the Caribbean prior to independence. The transition has had its 'teething' problems and the new arrangement has yet to deliver a significant boost to production and exports.

Rice

Most of the rice produced in Guyana has been consumed domestically. However, production of this major staple has declined from its all-time high of 180,000 tons/year in 1984. Indeed, the rice acreage was reported by the Guyana Rice Producers Association to have declined from 100,000 hectares in 1964 to 36,000 hectares in 1988. Undoubtedly, droughts and heavy rains had their effect on yields but a major cause of decline was poorly maintained irrigation and drainage systems. Another contributory factor to the reduction in rice output was that whereas most rice farms were in private hands, the irrigation, drainage and rice processing facilities were operated by government; short of management and funds, maintenance was neglected and this was exacerbated by many rice growers refusing to pay levies for drainage. The government-run mills were also reported to be slow in paying farmers for their production. Subsequently, the government has undertaken partial privatision by selling some of the rice mills back to private ownership.

Forestry

Guyana's considerable natural forest, which covers 75 per cent of the country, remained unexploited until the 1990s. With worldwide demand for timber expanding, forestry has offered export opportunities. However, difficulties of access have proved a problem. Also, attempts to add value, rather than only export raw logs, have been hindered by inadequate or unreliable energy supplies for mills and processing plants.

In common with many tropical countries, which have been dependent on agriculture, Guyana faces hard choices. With half the population resident in the capital, Georgetown, agriculture has to be made attractive as a career option for the rising generation. Agriculture in the fertile coastal plain could be developed into a modern and remunerative industry, but it requires investment in modern technology and equipment, and it demands a workforce and management willing and able to run the estates and private farms in a business-like and competitive manner. However, decisions to invest, especially long-term, and to develop appropriately educated, trained and motivated workforces depend as much on politics as economics. Sadly, as in many other countries, long-term development of agriculture has not been a political priority, and this has resulted in missed opportunities for boosting employment and national income.

Statistical information
  • Country: Guyana
  • Capital: Georgetown
  • Area: 215,000 sq km
  • Population: 700,000
  • Languages: English, Creole, Hindi, Urdu & Amerindian dialects
  • Life expectancy: 63 yrs
  • GDP: $2.7 billion
  • GDP per capita: $3,800
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 35%, industry 21%, services 44%
  • Natural resources: bauxite, gold, diamonds, hardwood timber, shrimp, fish.
  • Major industries: bauxite mining, sugar processing, rice milling, timber, textiles, gold mining
  • Agricultural products: sugar, rice, wheat, vegetable oils, beef, pork, poultry, shrimp, dairy products
  • Export commodities: sugar, gold, bauxite/alumina, rice, shrimp, molasses, rum, timber
  • Land use: arable 2.44%, permanent crops 0.08%, other 97.48%

Date published: July 2004

 

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As a Guyanese living abroad I am interested in returning to ... (posted by: Rawle Felix)

 

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