The failure of CARICOM countries to significantly dent the region’s US$3 billion food import bill, concerns about trade imbalances in Trinidad and Tobago’s favour and delays in fully implementing free movement featured heavily as regional leaders began their 33rd Regular Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government yesterday.
But despite the challenges and shortfalls, the leaders affirmed their commitment to the integration movement.
With high costs of food and energy a major challenge for Barbados and its neighbours, President Donald Ramotar of Guyana said the region had much undeveloped potential and lamented that the money spent on importing food remained high “even though we have most of the resources to guarantee our own food security and supply.
“It is therefore an indictment on our entire region that we are still to make a significant dent in our food import bill,” he told the gathering at Sandals Grande St Lucian Spa and Resort.
“Across our region we must invest more in food production . . . . We have to become more self-sufficient. This can be achieved if more impetus is given to the regional agricultural transformation programme which, through the Jagdeo Initiative, could encourage production and productivity, strengthen our competitiveness and secure better market access.”
The Jagdeo Initiative, initiated by former Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo, is a strategy for removing constraints to the development of agriculture in the Caribbean and seeks to develop a common agricultural policy.
Ramotar, head of government within the CARICOM Quasi Cabinet with responsibility for agriculture, agricultural diversification and food security, announced he would be re-initiating discussions on the priority actions in the agricultural sector with key regional stakeholders.
He further insisted there was a need to accelerate the momentum in regional institutions and other regional initiatives, including the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
The Guyanese leader, who is attending his first CARICOM Heads of Government Summit since being elected last December, urged leaders to “muster the political will to ensure that the intended jurisdictional boundaries” of the CCJ were realized.
“To do otherwise would be consciously or unconsciously fostering doubt in our own abilities,” he said.
Ramotar also lamented that implementation of the free movement of people as part of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) had been lagging for the most part.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, in pushing for that process to be speeded up, suggested that the categories for free movement be expanded to include security guards, household helpers and caregivers.
She also used the opportunity to address her country’s concerns about the trade imbalances which have prompted the opposition Jamaica Labour Party to call for Jamaica to pull out of the regional bloc.
Although acknowledging that “the regional concept remains a work in progress”, she reaffirmed Kingston’s commitment to the integration movement, adding that if CARICOM was not around before “it would have to be invented”.
However, she stressed that there must be a level playing field for all countries as far as trade was concerned.
“Every single CARICOM member state must benefit from our regional integration movement. Our private sectors must feel that there are opportunities to be pursued regionally through innovation and entrepreneurship through trade and investment,” Simpson-Miller said.
Outgoing CARICOM Chairman Desi Bouterse, President of Suriname, in giving an account of his stewardship of the regional body, said that in his six months at the helm, there had been “remarkable movements”.
He pointed to discussions initiated on the transformation needed at the CARICOM Secretariat to make it more effective and efficient, and the signing of a memorandum of understanding as the region’s commitment to shoulder the burden of the people of Haiti following the devastating earthquake as among those developments.
Bouterse also appealed for special attention to be paid to the region’s youth.
During yesterday’s ceremony, the Order Of CARICOM was conferred on former Trinidad and Tobago minister Dr Kamaluddin Mohammed for his sterling contribution to regional integration, in particular during his stint as Minister of West Indian Affairs. The award was accepted by his son Alimuddin Mohammed.