Guam Farmers Plead For Aid From Local Government

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Lawmakers look for ways to provide relief after crop damages

By Louella Losinio

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Marianas Variety Guam, Nov. 22, 2013) – After suffering substantial crop damage and losses from recent heavy rains, local farmers during a roundtable meeting convened at the Legislature yesterday lamented the lack of government action in terms of providing assistance

Ernie Wusstig, vice president of the Farmer's Cooperative Association of Guam, said it has been two months since the stormy weather hit Guam.

"Farmers, including myself, can't go to the grocery stores to buy food for our families. There are times when we thought we would go to welfare and start applying for assistance."

Bill McDonald, president of the Farmer's Cooperative, said: "Please understand where we are coming from, our industry is not one with the largest capital. We are sometimes forced to farm because that is all we got."

Dr. Marilyn Salas, a Umatac farmer and former University of Guam professor, pointed out that farmers are the lifeline of the island's food supply.

Salas mentioned several issues raised by farmers in a meeting earlier this week, including the rising cost of water rates and the difficulties in seeking compensation for crop damages.

Sen. Rory Respicio, who convened the roundtable, said that there were several solutions provided for immediate assistance to farmers, including suggestions that the governor use his transfer authority under emergency declaration, as well as using the existing statutes under the Department of Agriculture to provide assistance for crop damage.

Respicio recently wrote a letter to Governor Eddie Calvo urging him to declare a state of emergency and allow up to $250,000 in funding assistance for farmers.

He said the roundtable would help identify long-term mechanisms to facilitate funding so farmers do not have to go through these kinds of uncertainties.

For his part, Sen. Ben Pangelinan said the meeting allows farmers to extend their concerns to another audience after a prior meeting was convened with the governor's office.

"As a result of those meetings, the Legislature was made aware of the gravity of the situation. Proposals were being looked at as to how to proceed with providing assistance to the farmers," he said.

Pangelinan said the governor has refused to move even through the urging of Sen. Respicio and because of that, the senators had to look at the Legislature to provide an appropriation for farmers.

GEDA

The Guam Economic Development Authority (GEDA) board recently approved a 6-month loan allocating up to $20,000 per farmer.

The loan can be extended for 24 months on a 4 percent interest rate.

Tina Garcia, who represented GEDA at the meeting, said the GEDA board authorized the 6-month deferred payment which they felt would be enough time for the Department of Agriculture to work with the Legislature on funding the emergency.

"After six months, we work with the farmers to convert it to a loan. Again, initially, it would be funding that the Department of Agriculture could use as a grant for farmers until they get the legislative appropriation," she explained.

Respicio stressed that the loans should have been with the governor or with the Department of Agriculture, and not with the farmer.

"Had you done it that way, you would have seen a long line of farmers saying we need that compensation," he said.

Bill

Meanwhile, Respicio said he would be introducing a bill that would provide for an appropriation of $160,000 from fiscal year 2015 general revenues to the Department of Agriculture to provide assistance to farmers.

The appropriation shall take effect in October 2014 and would get the mechanism going for a long-term solution to the farmers' concerns.

Meanwhile, Pangelinan's Bill 223 will have a public hearing today.

The measure appropriates $400,000 of bond service fees from the issuance of the Guam Waterworks Authority bonds from GEDA to the Department of Agriculture for the sole purpose of funding the Compensation to Farmers for Crop Damages Program.

According to the senator, the funds provided from the bond service fees that GEDA will receive from the issuance of the GWA bonds is real cash and is a windfall revenue not originally budgeted for GEDA operations.

After introducing the bill, Pangelinan said: "Our island farmers have suffered crop losses due to the most recent rainstorms and I believe a loan program does not provide the necessary assistance our farmers deserve to make them whole."

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