The GSA: Forty years of providing human resources to support agricultural development By Cecilia McAlmont
Stabroek News
October 30, 2003

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Yesterday, Wednesday, Octo-ber 29, 2003 in an impressive ceremony presided over by its first female principal, Ms Lynette Cunha, the Guyana School of Agriculture (GSA) celebrated its fortieth birthday.

In many ways the growth and development of the GSA mirrors that of Guyana as a nation. Serious discussions about the necessity for such a school began over fifteen years before its establishment became a reality. In the book: 150 years of Agricultural Education in Guyana: Some thoughts and lessons from experience, the author Mr Winslow Davidson who was the longest serving principal of GSA, stated that the legislators of the immediate post World War II period, consistently argued the need to set up an agricultural school in the colony for practising and potential farmers. Among its most enthusiastic supporters was Dr Cheddi Jagan, then at the beginning of his political career. Davidson quoted several excerpts from the speeches Dr Jagan made on the subject in the Legislative Council. In a speech on March 3, 1948 he stated that it should be considered whether this $36,000 (now being spent on the Social Welfare Department) could be better spent to start an agricultural school in British Guiana instead of teaching people to make baskets. Less than a year later in supporting a motion to establish a technical school for boys, he argued that the education that we receive today in BG is merely one that is equipping us for jobs either in the Civil Service or the mercantile community. Very few of us get an education which is really suited for the soil. That sentiment is still very pertinent today. Nothing much was achieved at the time. However, the debate took on greater significance in 1953 after the People’s Progressive Party led by Dr Jagan won a landslide victory at the polls and dominated in the Legislative Council. The debate was no longer whether but when and where. Ten years later, on September 9, 1963, the school was opened at the site of the Central Agricultural Station in Mon Repos.

Dr Jagan did not remain in office long enough to influence the progress of the GSA. Its growth and development took place during the government of the PNC which took over the reigns of power under its leader Forbes Burnham in 1964. The first principal of the school was Mr Harry Madramootoo. In 1964, GSA was made a Public Corporation. On June 1, 1965, Mr Winslow Davidson became principal and remained at the helm of the GSA for the next 28 years. For the GSA, those years were the best of times and the worst of times.

The aims and objectives for setting up the GSA were: (a) to train persons in the theory and practice of agriculture and (b) to manage, develop and operate farms and undertakings of an agricultural nature i.e. to operate commercial farms and undertakings in accordance with good farming practice. Out of this evolved the school’s mission: “To promote and support agricultural development through education and training of young men and women interested in an agricultural career.” The first intake of students consisted of 40 males. Twenty-eight were registered for the Diploma course and the rest for the certificate course. Fourteen of the students were sponsored by members of the already important rice sector. The school offers a two-year sub-professional Diploma. Its admission requirements are 4 subjects GCE or CXC including English, and at least one science subject. A sound basic primary education is the requirement for admission to the Certificate programme. It has a strong practical bias and is intended mainly for youths. The school is run by a board appointed by cabinet on the recommendation of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Principal and a member of the board head the team which is responsible for the day to day management of the school.

Within seven years of the establishment of the GSA, Guyana became a republic espousing the ideology of “Cooperative Socialism” with an emphasis on self-sufficiency. In its 1972-1976 development plan, the government declared its intention “to feed, clothe and house the nation”. Import substitution, buying local and growing more food were the main strategies to achieve these goals. It was clear from the resources invested in its development that the GSA was to play an important role in helping to achieve the goals. In 1970, GSA’S farming activities were limited to market gardening on a fifteen-acre plot and a livestock farm. By 1980, the school had 47 acres under rice, a 50-acre orchard at Kurukururu and a small carambola orchard at Mon Repos in addition to the original market gardening plot. Significant resources were invested in a Food Processing Unit which served both as a teaching and semi commercial agency.

There were also significant increases in student enrolment and numbers of graduates. In 1970, 32 students were enrolled in the Diploma programme, by 1980 that number had increased to 133. The first 2 female students were enrolled in 1968. In 1970 and 1980 the numbers were 5 and 23 respectively. Between 1963 and 1970 there were 92 graduates from the Certificate course and 71 from the Diploma course. Between 1971 and 1980 that number had increased to 173 and 455 respectively. The larger number of graduates from the Diploma course reflected a growing need for middle level personnel trained in the field. Several of the graduates were nationals from other Caricom countries who returned home to Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Montserrat to serve. Like the rest of Guyana.

The second half of the decade of the 1980s and the early years of the 1990s were a period of hardship and stagnation for the GSA. Its subvention was cut drastically, its infrastructure deteriorated and its dedicated staff had to try to achieve the same results with considerably less resources. Nonetheless, the school continued to support the agricultural sector with some of the human resources needed for its survival. Interestingly the number of female graduates increased significantly.

The decade of the 1990s also proved to be a period of change for GSA as it was for Guyana. The October 5, 1992 elections saw the return to power, after 28 years, of Dr Cheddi Jagan under whose tenure the school had been established. Also, after 28 years at the helm, the man who had worked tirelessly to keep the GSA afloat retired. In the words of his successor, Mr Desmond Nicholson who served as principal between 1993 and 2002, his first years as principal was a period of rebuilding. Significant funds were once again made available by government to rebuild the infrastructure. Three new laboratories were completed and the dormitory accommodation increased. The availability of more accommodation resulted in an increase in student intake. There was, however, a sharp decrease in the numbers of overseas students since grants were no longer available. In keeping with the new emphasis on sustainable development a Diploma in Forestry was offered from 1994. The principal opined that the challenges of transition were significantly mitigated by the continuity in the membership of the board which continued to function as before.

This opinion is shared by his successor Ms Lynette Cunha who became the fourth principal but the first female to hold that position in the GSA. Her accession to that position coincided with the introduction of two new programmes - the Diploma in Animal Health and Veterinary Public Health and the Diploma in Livestock Production and Management courses formerly offered by REPAHA which recently closed its doors. She stated that her first challenge was to have those programmes up and running. In the longer term, she sees her main task as implementing a programme of distance education to better serve the students especially those in the hinterland regions.

Both the immediate past and current principals agree that the greatest contribution GSA has made to Guyana’s development and to a lesser extent regional development was to provide significant human resources to support the agricultural sector which is still the mainstay of our economy. They point to the fact that over the past 40 years, GSA has produced 2,328 graduates 465 of whom are women, 153 are foreign students, four of whom are from Africa. These graduates are the backbone of Guysuco, the Ministry of Agriculture; they staff the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Guyana and are employed in other regional and international organisations.

At the opening of the GSA in 1963, Mr Brindley Benn, Minister of Agriculture, Forest and Lands had remarked that he looked forward to the future when his government could say in retrospect that their confidence in starting the school had been fully justified. The future is now. Can they?