The announcement by the Government that the Wales Sugar Estate would be closed at the end of 2016 was the subject of a symposium at Moray House at Camp and Quamina Streets, the former home of the late David de Caires, the founding editor of Stabroek News. In opening the event, the Chair of Moray House Trust, Isabelle de Caires, noting the controversial nature of the issue and the passions it has generated in the midst of a general strike in the sugar industry, declared that it was not a political event but a debate with panelists and contributors being free to express whatever views they wished. Ms. de Caires pointed out that while some may wish to construe an organised public event on an important national issue as being politically motivated, silence could also be construed as a political statement.
The panelists were Jai Petam, who until a year ago served the sugar industry for 35 years, including in senior management positions generally and at Wales Estate over the past 18 years; Derrick Venture, of La Retraite/Stanleytown Cane Farmers Association for the past 35 years; Mark Khan, who has worked at Wales Estate for the past 30 years and is the plant foreman; Christopher Ram, accountant and lawyer and President of the Guyana Bar Association; Vicram Oditt, businessman and former Chair of the Board of Directors from 1993 to 2003. Guysuco declined participation but Mr. Tony Vieira, a member of the Board of Directors of Guysuco was present but in his personal capacity. And while the Government also did not participate, the Minister of Business, Mr. Dominic Gaskin, was present throughout the meeting. I am sure that these gestures were appreciated by members of the audience, including those from Wales. No doubt those who are passionately urging the Government to pause and reconsider are hoping that the Government is not only listening, but will also hear.
Had the Government been officially present at the meeting and could have made a decision, having heard all the participants, there is no doubt that it would have stayed its decision until it was able to consult cane farmers and Wales Estate workers. The two persons who represented these groups, Derrick Venture and Mark Khan, together with Jai Petam and contributors from the floor who are from Wales, provided a vast wealth of information and left no doubt in the mind of the audience, not only that the decision was a bad one, but that there are no shortages of ideas as to how the situation at Wales can be turned around. Their argument was that it is the problems in the field, which can be resolved with some investment, that are critical and that have played the major role in the deterioration of the performance of the estate. In terms of the factory, while it may be old, the critical working parts are not. They have been changed, refurbished or modernized, a process that is ongoing. The factory is said to be performing with sufficient present and future capacity to process the cane that is fed to it.
For those of us who pontificate from Georgetown, the presentations and contributions from the floor were a revelation as the realities at Wales. As stated above the meeting did not have the perspectives of Guysuco or the Government which could possibly have expanded on the proposals to absorb some workers at Uitvlugt and transport from Wales to Uitvlught the cane produced by cane farmers. These ideas were discussed and detailed reasons were advanced to demonstrate that they were not feasible.
Christopher Ram and Vic Oditt also spoke and gave different perspectives. Mr. Ram dealt with the report of the Commission of Inquiry and its silence about the closure of any estate. He pointed out the contradiction that members of the Board were on the COI, did not recommend a closure of any estate but yet, as members of the Board, supported closure. He dealt with the finances of Guysuco and advanced the argument that its parlous financial state does not preclude a rehabilitation of Wales Estate. Mr. Oditt pointed out the vast potential of Wales Estate if it is privatized with invited participation from interested stakeholders. He argued, among other things, that byproducts such as molasses and electricity can vastly enhance the profitability of Wales. Seepaul Narine of GAWU, Kenneth Joseph of NAACIE and Ronald Ally, former Chair of Guysuco Board, were present and contributed to the debate.
The most poignant references during the discussions were to the likely devastating impact to the Wales community specifically and to other West Bank communities, which are already struggling with poverty and other significant social problems. It was suggested that the closure of Wales would aggravate and multiply those problems and have a devastating impact on the West Bank community.
The Moray House event was a significant contribution to the debate on the closure of the Wales Estate. The information provided and views advanced would enhance public education and information, encourage public debate on the matter and enable citizens to develop an informed view.