The Failure of Burnham’s “Feed, Clothe and House the Nation” Plan

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As Guyana’s Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and his People’s National Congress (PNC) moved to implement their brand of "cooperative socialism", they introduced a new development plan in 1972 with the grand objective to “feed, house and clothe the nation by 1976.” Burnham apparently believed that his nationalisation policy which was being implemented at that period would help accrue the revenues needed to finance this “FCH” plan. But he failed to understand that most of the agricultural producers – the Indians – were also PPP supporters whose democratic right to elect a government he had had taken away by rigging elections in 1968 and subsequently in 1973 as well. And with his studied policy of discriminating against these very people who were involved in production of agricultural commodities, the FCH plan was doomed to failure from the beginning.

The FCH plan

The new development plan was unveiled on 8 May 1973 by Dr. Kenneth King, the Minister of Economic Development. It was laced with slogans and spoke about “moulding the society” which must be “self-reliant”, eventually to become “egalitarian” under “cooperative socialism”. It announced hypocritically that “the people as a whole” would be involved “in the formulation of national policies and in making decisions, which implement those policies.” Brazenly, it added that economic power would be placed in the hands of all Guyanese.

According to Dr. King, this development plan would “create employment opportunities”, generate “equal distribution of incomes” and spur “equitable geographic distribution of economic activities”. Its main objective, however, would be “feeding, clothing and housing ourselves”. Spending on the plan would amount to G$ 1,150 million over the five year period ending in 1976.

Immediately, PNC and government leaders began a propaganda blitz to highlight this FCH programme. The country was flooded with posters, pamphlets and booklets promoting speeches by Burnham and his Ministers on “feeding, clothing and housing the nation by 1976.” All Government policy was directed towards this goal, and even the curriculum in schools was re-written to ensure that all learning activities maintained this goal as their overall objective.

Failure to “house the nation”

But when 1976 ended, this national goal was not achieved. In the area of housing, for example, the plan called for the building of 65,000 “housing units” at a cost of G$250 million. In King’s own words, the targets were specified, thus: “As is well known the target that we have set is 65,000 housing units. We have already built 5,000 of these in 1972, and our plan is to increase the tempo of building activity to 8,000 in 1973; 13,000 in 1974; 17,000 in 1975; and 22,000 in 1976.”

From its inception, this housing plan was sharply criticised by the opposition PPP who raised questions about how it would be financed, considering that the government had announced that it would seek funding from multilateral agencies. Actually, the PNC administration was unable to garner any such funding, and the whole housing plan was a colossal failure. Burnham himself was forced to admit this fact in his “address to the nation” on 14 December, 1976 when he declared: “We promised to house the nation. . . . We have not done so.
. . . Our statistics show, however, . . . that we have built 33,000 units. The rest of the nation is still to be housed.”

However, Burnham’s statistics were badly flawed. Using the government’s own statistics, the PPP showed that only 1,061 units were built in 1972; 1,128 in 1973; 1,037 in 1974; and 941 in 1975. This gave a grand total of 4,167 or only 6.5 percent of the target set in the FCH plan. And even this small amount was concentrated in Georgetown or in rural Afro-Guyanese communities from which the PNC drew political support.

In his address, Burnham gave excuses why the housing programme failed. He noted, inter alia, that (1) investment funds, initially pegged at G$250 million, had to be increased to G$1,500 million; (2) inflation between 1970 and 1976 had affected building costs; (3) prices for materials skyrocketed; (4) there was a shortage of cement; (5) there were not enough skilled workmen; (6) floods and heavy rainfall affected construction, sugar and rice production; and (7) sugar prices, fell on the world market, thus drastically reducing revenues from foreign earnings.

But even while the Burnham administration was falling far short of the targets, it maintained a propaganda front that feeding, clothing and housing the nation would be achieved by the end of 1976. The vast majority of Guyanese knew that this was a pipe-dream but, despite this, Burnham and his cohorts continued to delude themselves that everything was going well.

Failure to “clothe the nation”

The PNC’s “clothing” programme was also an abysmal flop. This involved cultivating cotton at Kimba, in the intermediate savannahs, and processing it into cotton fabric at the textile factory built by the Chinese government in Ruimveldt, Georgetown. The cotton, cultivated mainly by members of the National Service, was short in both quantity and quality to meet the requirements of the factory; as a result, raw cotton had to be imported from the United States to keep it running. Even so, the quality of cloth produced was not of very good standard, and the quantities were grossly insufficient to meet the needs of the population. Thus, fabrics continued to be imported, but because of import restrictions imposed by the government, these as well as clothing became expensive commodities. Inflation and a virtual wage freeze during that period also drastically reduced the ability of most Guyanese to purchase clothing.

Failure to “feed the nation” – PNC anti-agriculture policies

“Feeding the nation” was even a greater disaster. Much of the resources needed for housing and clothing the nation depended on the expanded production of agricultural commodities locally so that there would be a greater volume of exports to ensure more foreign exchange earnings. As an agricultural based economy, it was essential that, in particular, rice, sugar and other food crops as well as meat and fish production should also show improvements. But all of this did not happen because of political and economic policies directed against the food producers, who, in the majority, were political supporters of the opposition PPP.

With respect to the sugar industry, the PNC, after imposing a levy in 1974 on the large profits from export sales, finally nationalised it in 1976. But by politicising its management, and applying political pressures on the sugar workers, almost all PPP supporters, production fell. Similar problems also afflicted the nationalised bauxite industry. And since world market prices for both sugar and bauxite were declining, there was not very much increased revenue from these two major export industries to apply towards the FCH plan.

Attack the rice farmers

The PNC’s political pressures on food producers had their genesis from the time that party took control of the government after the December 1964 elections. Since 1965 there was a systematic destruction of Guyana’s food potential as a result of the anti-agricultural policies pursued by the PNC-UF coalition (1965-68) and the successor PNC regime (after 1968).

The first anti-agricultural blow was felt by the rice industry. The sale of rice to Cuba was stopped in 1965 while an anti-producer Rice Marketing Board (RMB) was organised with the rice producers’ majority being replaced by persons with virtually no interest and experience in rice production. Further, the Connell Rice and Sugar Company of the USA was contracted as the exclusive agency to sell surplus rice on the world market at a retainer’s fee of $258,000 plus a one percent commission. These two actions were among the factors responsible for the losses of $7 million suffered by the RMB in 1965-1966. The lack of confidence in the anti-democratic RMB and the PNC-UF coalition deteriorated further in October 1966 when the purchase price of rice and paddy was reduced.

This decrease in prices occurred at a time when production costs were rising chiefly on account of rising costs of labour, machinery, fuel, fertilisers and other inputs. Around the same period, too, the government withdrew concessions such as duty-free gasoline, and cheap fertilisers from the farmers. The PNC also ordered all rice must be sold to the government which purchased it at a low price and then re-sold the rice on the world market at a high price, but refusing to pass down some of these profits to the rice farmers.

All of these attacks on the rice industry took place when there was a world wide demand for rice, but rice farmers were given no encouragement to meet these demands. Actually, rice production declined in 1965 and continued on this downward slide for the next decade.

Because of the decline in the rice industry, there were periodic shortages of this commodity to consumers locally. Further, Guyana’s ability to meet the demands of foreign markets became questionable, and exports to Jamaica and Trinidad decreased sharply.

A significant reason for the lack of confidence by rice farmers was the withdrawal of state recognition of the Rice Producers’ Association as the organisation representing the interest of rice farmers. On the other hand, the PNC appointed its hand-picked supporters to the so-called Rice Action Committees which were given the official status as “representatives” of rice producers. The PNC also applied the same anti-democratic formula in the areas of milk production and peasant cane farming.

No emphasis on drainage and irrigation

Another aspect of the PNC anti-agricultural policy was its shifting of the emphasis on infrastructural development from drainage and irrigation, to roads, sea defence, airports and public buildings. Allocations for drainage and irrigation were actually reduced from 30 percent in the PPP Development Plan (1960-64) to 17 percent in the PNC Development Plan (1966-72). But only one-third of the money was actually spent on water control; the rest was diverted to unproductive infrastructure.

Drainage and irrigation schemes were sacrificed for two reasons. Firstly, the United States government was not very keen in promoting the development of agriculture in Guyana. In the 1965-1970 period, the United States had a large surplus of food and had even inaugurated a soil bank scheme (i.e., payment of farmers to keep agricultural land out of production). Agricultural development would, therefore, have made Guyana a competitor in food exports, and so the USA injected loans to the PNC Government with the condition that they be used for unproductive infrastructure. Secondly, the non-agricultural infrastructural projects generally employed mainly Afro-Guyanese who in the great majority were PNC supporters. Also, as stated earlier, the PNC applied a studied policy of political discrimination against PPP supporters with the result that it provided scanty assistance to them.

Decline in food production

All sections of agricultural food production therefore suffered decreases throughout the decade of the 1970s. Even some of the food items that Guyana previously exported had to be imported at times. For instance, in 1976, the target year when Guyana was supposed to have enough food to feed itself, the Government imported 2,000 bags of black-eye peas from the USA, despite massive publicity of large scale production of this commodity at Kimbia on the Berbice River. That same year, too, the Government imported 20,000 bags of rice dust (bhusi) from the United States to keep the stock-feed industry going!

This situation continued into the 1980s as well. To the shame of the Guyanese people, the nation was forced in 1982 to import cooking oil from St. Vincent which before 1970 bought cooking oil and copra from Guyana. And no longer was Guyana able to export p1antains, cabbages and pumpkins to the Eastern Caribbean since production of these commodities also slumped.

Food production had declined so greatly by 1976 that consumption of food items per head of the population had dropped drastically to seriously affect the nutritional level of the young children and the population as a whole. The government’s policy of banning essential imported food items compounded this situation. According to a report of the Guyana Consumers Association, in 1976 poultry production amounted to 8 ounces a week per head of the population; eggs were 1 egg per person every 8 days; fish, 14 ounces per person per week; beef, 4 ounces per person per week; and ground provisions, 5 pounds per person per month.

By the end of that year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, ground provisions output was 9 million pounds below the target set by the Government; vegetables were 2 million pounds below the target; pulses and nuts, 6 million pounds below; coconuts 5 million pounds below; and fruits 14 million pounds below the target. Actually, food production under the Burnham administration never recovered. The removal of the subsidy on stock-feed in 1977 led to less production of poultry meat; and the rapid increase of cattle rustling, among other factors, threw the beef industry in a tailspin. By 1982, six years after the FCH plan collapsed, the production of beef was only 3.5 lbs per person per year!

Milk production also reached its lowest level during the same “FCH” period. Since 1967, the milk pasteurisation plant in Georgetown was unable to meet the needs of the people of the city, and because of insufficient supplies it had to be closed down on a number if occasions. And with the restriction of milk imports, the shortage of milk resulted in severe malnutrition especially among children. The shortage of milk has also caused its price to sky-rocket.

Fish and shrimp also become more expensive for the consumers. Although it was the small fishermen who supplied most of the fish to the local population, the fees for their licences were raised while they had to pay exorbitant prices for essential supplies such as ice and fishing gear.

With respect to farmers’ earnings, until 1972, rice and milk prices paid to farmers were lower than those paid in 1964. Crop bonuses were taken away and the authorities did very little to stamp out praedial larceny. From time to time, the PNC Government granted small price increases to farmers for their produce. However, these increases were almost immediately negated by subsequent increases in agricultural inputs which made production more costly.

Little emphasis on agriculture

Agricultural areas suffered from administrative neglect. There were few access roads in the farming districts and during the rainy season farmers found great difficulty in removing their harvest from the field. The local authorities themselves paid scant attention to maintenance work such as repairing kokers, bridges and dams, and clearing canals. Even the once vibrant land development schemes like Black Bush Polder and Tapacuma fell into a state of disrepair.

Transportation of farmers’ produce especially from the riverine areas and the Rupununi received no attention. As a result, peanuts, cashew nuts and beef production dropped drastically since those products could not reach Georgetown to be sold.

To produce food in large quantities, farmers needed land, but despite most of the land being owned by the state, genuine farmers faced great problems in obtaining land for farming purpose. Since 1965 much of the land allocated for farming was shared out to PNC supporters, many of whom were not farmers. This resulted in agricultural land remaining idle and, therefore, unproductive.

On the other hand, there were instances of areas of land cultivated by genuine farmers being seized by the government and handed to PNC supporters who, after a short period, stopped cultivating crops on them. This practice of seizing land from genuine farmers was put into practice at Non Pariel in East Demerara, Black Bush Polder in the Corentyne district, and Onverwagt in West Berbice.

Failed agricultural projects

It was only after the FCH plan was announced that PNC apparently realised that food production would be the solution of the numerous economic ills affecting Guyana. It commenced setting up some agricultural projects on which it placed its political supporters as cultivators. But many of these agricultural projects were illusionary and improperly planned with the result that most of them turned out as huge failures despite the millions of dollars spent on them. Projects like Global Agri on the Berbice River and Buteabu on the Mahaicony River failed miserably. A palm oil project at Wauna in the North West District also flopped, and a corn project organised by the Caribbean Food Corporation with the blessing of Caricom died a quiet death. A failed potato project at Kato in the heart of the interior also greatly embarrassed the PNC administration. It was no wonder that the “feeding the nation” aspect of the FCH plan collapsed.

As a result of the PNC anti-agricultural policy since it led the government from 1965, almost every food commodity was in short supply in 1976. Generally every food item not produced locally was banned, although these items could be obtained at the black market at exorbitant prices. But even in the sale of food, the PNC applied tight political and racial control. Through the state-run External Trade Bureau, it handled all imports which it then redistributed to PNC-organised “cooperatives” known as Knowledge Sharing Institutes strategically located in predominantly Afro-Guyanese areas. These retail outlets sold preferentially to persons who produced PNC membership cards and they acted to squeeze the small rural mainly Indian-owned groceries out of business.

No democracy

The PNC could never motivate Guyanese farmers to produce more, since that party itself had created the problems for agriculture and food production. Obviously, as an agriculture-based economy, Guyana needed to expand production in agricultural commodities for the export market in order that revenues would be available for financing projects aimed at feeding, housing and clothing the population. However, by taking away the people’s democratic rights as evidenced in the 1968 and 1973 rigged elections, and also by denying them economic incentives, the PNC alienated the food producers from the mainstream of political and economic power. The continued rejection of democratic principles by the PNC during the period of the FCH plan, and even after, only helped to perpetuate further crises in food production and housing, among other sectors in Guyana. Burnham and the PNC, not being practitioners of democracy, could not understand why production and initiatives suffered when people had their democratic rights taken away from them. The entire nation, even their rank and file political supporters, had to suffer as a result of this denial of basic freedoms.

15 November 2005

[Note: In the period 1972-76, one Guyana dollar was equivalent to US$0.50.]