Folio News Story
January 6, 2006

Charity begins at home

Dr. Suresh Narine is helping to improve conditions in his homeland

by Lee Craig

The president of Guyana had a mission this year for a professor from the University of Alberta to use his knowledge in agriculture and food science to help grow Guyana's crops more efficiently and to help develop a scientific institute that will assist in this goal.

It happened this way: While the world was focused on the horrors of the tsunami in south and southeast Asia last year, Guyana was struck by a natural disaster as well. Flooding from torrential rains affected about 200,000 of the country's 765,000 citizens.

The Guyanese community in Edmonton raised money to help those affected by the flooding, and Narine, who teaches and conducts research in the Department of Agriculture, Food, and Nutritional Science, and who lived in Guyana until he was 19, was entrusted with distributing medicines, food, and sanitation items door to door. During his efforts he met the president of the country, Bharrat Jagdeo, whom he had known when he was younger and living in Guyana.

"Guyana needs scientific help with its agriculture development. It has a large land mass with a small population, as Canada has," said Narine, who specializes in the physical, chemical, and bio-chemical properties of food products. "Guyana has a large agricultural potential, which historically hasn't been exploited."

The problems Guyana faces are generally the problems of other developing countries, Narine said: they see their scientists, academics, and technicians leave permanently for other countries the "brain drain" of which Narine says he himself is an example. As well, there are infrastructure problems, and the country has not been able to develop its industries.

So on the president's request, and on his own personal time, Narine put together a team to assess ways to develop Guyana's dairy and beef sector. A team made up of experts from Alberta Agriculture, Food, and Rural Development, the U of A, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency went to Guyana with Narine last April and made recommendations.

Narine then spent part of his summer vacation working to get Guyana's National Institute of Applied Science and Technology back up and running. The institute had deteriorated in recent years. The trip also allowed him to spend a month conducting bio-diesel research for his projects at the U of A.

Setting strategies, writing grant applications, and hiring were some of the jobs that Narine, a father of three, took on during the summer for the institute, which is slated to officially open again this month. He sees his role, from Canada, as being an unofficial scientific advisor who will travel to Guyana occasionally.

"It's good work for me to do because I can fit it into my spare time," said Narine.

"Working for the institute will be an interesting challenge, to convince people to spend money on science and technology in a poor country that has so many other immediate needs," he added.

"It's been a real positive experience, because while there has been a particular problem with brain drain, for some of us as we approach 40, we are thinking we need to do something about it."

The institute wants to build an incubation centre as part of its focus on value-added agriculture. Many scientists from both Alberta Agriculture and the U of A's Agriculture, Food, and Nutritional Science Department have gone or will be going on seminars or research projects to Guyana. As well, some of the department's students have volunteered to work in Guyana for a year to work on food studies research projects.