POMONA ESSEQUIBO, Guyana (Alertnet) – George Griffith is pleased with his harvest. Improved farming techniques and a different variety of rice have helped the 70-year-old farmer reap 103 bags of rice from his two-and-a-half acre (one hectare) field in this coastal village. That is an increase of at least 12 percent from his previous crops.
“The land of itself is fertile, very fertile, (but the harvest) has a lot to do with the preparation of the land,” he said.
Preparation and adaptation are the key words as Guyana’s farmers seek to increase their incomes while adapting to unpredictable weather conditions. The pressures of a changing climate are forcing a rethink of agricultural practices by individual farmers and the government.
Griffith, for instance, has been able to maximise his production using a new variety of rice, and minimise losses from climate-related flooding through adaptive measures in the field.
At his farm, Griffith must deal with flooding caused by heavy spring ocean tides as well as increasingly heavy rainfall. Efforts to improve drainage have helped address the problem, but now Griffith also maintains protective banks around his fields to keep out excess water.
“Even if there is flooding, it would not override the banks,” he said.
Because there are two crops every year, maintaining the banks is an ongoing task.
“You have to ensure before the crop is put in that these necessary facilities are in place,” he said.
To deal with wetter conditions, Griffith also is trying out a rice variety called GRDB 10. It is specially adapted to wet conditions and can survive for a few days underwater, which means that the farmer need not wait for the land to be completely drained before planting. An additional advantage of a rice plant that can endure being underwater is that it does not face as much competition from weeds and other plants, which are killed by standing water.
“When you grow it through the water you eliminate these things and the rice is clean, free from these different weeds,” Griffith said.
The farmer points out that the key to using the variety successfully is having very level land, where the water can be evenly distributed.
Getting such crop transitions is crucial for Guyana’s rice and sugar industries, which are key contributors to the South American nation’s food security, large employers and a major source of foreign exchange for the country.
A recent report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UN-ECLAC) noted that climate change will have a serious impact on the livelihoods of a large part of Guyana’s population unless the country adapts.
The report listed a variety of climate change factors that are likely to affect Guyana’s agriculture, including temperature changes, drought, increased rainfall intensity, an increase in sea level and temperature, and the risk of salt water intrusion.
Higher temperatures are associated with sterility in rice flowers, which prevents grains from developing. The ECLAC report warns that a temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius would result in a 10 percent reduction in yield.
Dharamkumar Seeraj, general secretary of Guyana’s Rice Producers Association, said that his organisation began researching new, better adapted varieties of rice, such as GRDB 10, about five years ago.
The new varieties are adapted to withstand floods as well as dry conditions, according to Seeraj.
“Right now we have some strains that we are testing under flooded conditions and these have demonstrated the ability to stay under water for between seven and nine days. They go into a state of hibernation, more or less,” Seeraj said.
Seeraj is worried by projections about long-term climate change, but his biggest concern for the moment is increasing extreme weather, such as heavy downpours associated with La Nina weather patterns.
Speaking to local media recently, Jagnarine Singh, general manager of the Guyana Rice Development Board, said rice yields are already rising in the country as a result of the adaptation efforts.
“Even in the first crop (of 2011), we have been seeing that the yields are higher and this is because of the new practices that the farmers have been employing, our technology transfer programmes and new varieties,” said Singh.
SUGAR ADAPTATION TOO
Sugar producers also are having to adapt to changes in weather patterns, according to the ECLAC study, as increased rainfall reduces the number of days available for planting and harvesting sugar cane. Flooding from more intense rains also impacts production by increasing drainage time in coastal areas.
Gavin Ramnarain, head of agricultural research at Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco), the state-owned sugar company, said that the corporation’s priorities are cultivating flood-tolerant, high-yielding cane varieties, improving drainage systems, and diversifying income-generating activities for sugar farmers.
“Guysuco has begun to modify the design of the drainage system to increase discharge capacity as one of our adaptive mechanisms,” he said.
Ramnarain said that the company is working closely with the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority to widen sluice doors and increasing the capacity of drainage systems where possible.
However, Ramnarain noted that effects of climate change will necessitate additional drainage structures and efforts to offset the anticipated increase in surface runoff.
Guysuco, for instance, is increasing the height of dams around farmland, and levelling fields so that water will drain faster.
Seeraj, of the Rice Producers Association, agrees that his industry must also work in a more climate-smart manner.
“We know (climate change) is happening. … The world has awakened to the fact they we must take measures to (deal with it),” he said.
Johann Earle is a Georgetown-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.