In May 2020, the Minister of Finance announced via a virtual press conference that the Government would be granting interest free loans to Micro, Small and Medium sized Enterprises (MSME’s) as part of its COVID-19 relief measures. In July 2020, the initiative was implemented by the Ministry of Finance, listing four (4) participating Commercial Banks. Through this, businesses who earn an annual revenue between $500,000 to $25,000,000 are able to apply for these interest-free loans of up to five (5) years (now seven (7) years), where the borrower can receive a moratorium of up to two (2) years on principal payments. The interest on these loans (approximately 3%) is to be paid by the Government to the Banks, quarterly.
However, it is most unfortunate that the Government does not see it fit to extend this or any other similar facility to our farmers and fishermen. The massive increase in the price of food has reached crisis levels. Poor and vulnerable families have been hit especially hard. The spike in the cost of importing food has been a major cause of this price inflation. In this context, national food security has become of vital importance to every government across the globe — except for the Rowley led PNM government.
While the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) exists to specifically provide financial assistance for farmers in the development of the agricultural sector, many have great difficulty in accessing loans through the ADB. An article dated October 2019 from the online news site, www.caribbeanbeatnews.com bears the heading “Getting Loans Like Pulling Teeth”, referring specifically to the difficulty that farmers face in obtaining financing through the ADB.
In the recent Parliamentary Standing Finance Committee $25,000,000 from ADB’s 2021 allocation was vired to other Heads of Expenditure. When asked why the ADB was being gutted in this manner, the Minister of Finance could not offer any meaningful explanation. He ludicrously and cold-heartedly suggested that farmers were perhaps either not requesting loans, or did not meet the criteria to access ADB funding. If the ADB is not fulfilling its mandate it means there is a deliberate attempt by the PNM government to neglect our farmers and fisherfolk and prevent them from accessing developmental loans.
The level of disrespect that the Rowley-led PNM continues to serve on our farmers and fishermen is a crying shame. In fiscal 2021, the Minister of Finance sat for an entire year on a $500 million stimulus package that he boasted about, while not one cent of that money went into developing the sustainability of our agriculture sector. In fiscal 2022, four (4) months have already passed and none of the $300 million that was put aside to stimulate the agriculture sector has been utilized, while our farmers have to face stringent lending requirements and a 3.5% – 5% interest rate from the ADB.
While businesses benefit from interest free loans for up to seven (7) years under a renewed arrangement, our farmers are bound to an ADB interest rate that can accumulate to thirty-five percent (35%) of what was borrowed after a similar time period. Why is it that businesses who buy and sell fruits, vegetables and other agricultural produce can benefit from an interest free loan with a two (2) year moratorium, but persons who toil blood, sweat and tears to cultivate and harvest said commodities have no such incentive? This level of inequity is totally unacceptable from a Government that has promised to put agriculture first.
I therefore call upon the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries to work in the best interest of our farmers and fishermen by removing all interest payments and offer a similar moratorium on ADB loans. The Government has a duty to assist our farmers and fisherfolk for the longer they are ignored, we can expect to see further increasing food costs.