Accra — Last year, rice farmers took to the streets of Ghana's capital of Accra and accused the government of allowing imports to destroy their livelihoods.
Among those who have campaigned hard for the farmers over the past year is Edward Kareweh, presently deputy general secretary of the General Agricultural Workers' Union (GAWU) of the Ghana Trade Unions Congress.
Before his present position Kareweh was a rice farmer in the 1980s. He has suffered what farmers are today demonstrating about. "My 60 hectare rice farm in the Fumbisi Valley in the Upper East Region (in the north of the country) was destroyed because of the policies that the government pursued in the past. I lost everything," he laments.
Kareweh blames the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for "the unbridled liberalisation policy that they made the government pursue and which resulted in the removal of subsidies to rice farmers", a move that favoured imports.
"The consequence has been that it helped to destroy the economy of the northern region which was built on rice farming," Kareweh says in an interview with IPS.
The ministry of agriculture's data indicates that rice consumption in the country has been on the increase since the early 1990s. In 2005, total rice consumption amounted to between 450,000 and 500,000 metric tons.
In a survey conducted by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), it was estimated that local rice production was at about 290,000 metric tons by 2006. This clearly shows that there is a deficit in supply.
The shortfall in supply has given a basis for some people to argue that rice imports have augmented domestic production. Kareweh disagrees: "the policy framework that exists today does not support farmers to strive to increase their outputs.
"Rice production is collapsing because the farmers do not have access to markets which have been taken over by cheap imports from abroad."
Executive secretary for the local lobby group, Ghana Rice Inter-Professional Body (GRIB), Fedelis Avogo, answers "yes and no" when asked about the effects of imports on local rice production.
He notes that "rapid population growth and consequent urbanisation, combined with changes in the way we live, has contributed hugely to the demand for rice in the country. This should have been matched by the appropriate policy frameworks to assist the local farmers.
"The lower prices of imported rice are as a result of the advantages that the foreign suppliers have over the local farmers. It makes it difficult for any serious competition. The other side is that our current production capacity is low and we have to find a way of addressing the problem."
Accordingly, GRIB has suggested the establishment of a rice development fund by the government to help with land development, something that is capital intensive in rice production.
John Awuni, corporate affairs director of Finatrade, one of the leading rice importers in the country, argues in return that, "imports in the case of Ghana have not killed local rice production because the local rice sector has never been capable of producing enough to feed the population over the years."
He admits that local rice production has been deficient in infrastructure, personnel and expertise. But, he asks, "should any government put a stop to rice importation? Local production would need over a decade of consistent planning to improve in order to fill the gap."
Awuni claims rice farmers have always used the removal of subsidies as an excuse to "cover their deficiencies in production. Over the years, Ghana has relied on rainfall to support rice production with no intervention by the private sector".
But, retorts Musah Iddris, a one-time farmer from Tamale in the north of the country, "this argument is what annoys us because the government has refused to support the sector with adequate extension services, the right technology and even in the matter of seeds, as they have done with cocoa for example".
The reality of the north is that the large tracts of lowlands that people have used for rice farming is also vulnerable to the weather.
Iddris describes it thus: "when it rains in the north, it turns into floods destroying farms and property and that is why we have called on the government to provide support in the form of irrigable lands away from the flood-prone areas, but this has not been forthcoming."
It is, however, heartening to note that the government is not sleeping on the issue.
The northern regional director of agriculture, Sylvester Adongo, announced just before Christmas last year that 813 farmers have been assisted in the three northern regions with land preparation, the acquisition of certified rice seeds and the purchase of subsidised fertiliser to cultivate 10,000 hectares.
Adongo said that there were about 400,000 hectares of lowlands in the three regions capable of producing about 200,000 tonnes of paddy rice a year. In addition to this, the government is trying to revive an abandoned rice irrigation project at Aveyime in the east of the country which, if it comes on board, would help improve rice production in the country.
These moves make Iddris hopeful for the future but he poses the question: "what will I be doing until then?"