HOPE/DOCHFOUR, Guyana (AlertNet) – With rising sea levels posing a growing risk to agriculture on Guyana’s low-lying coastland, the government is exploring the feasibility of expanding cultivation of rice and other crops to the interior savannah.
But experts say several challenges must be overcome to bolster the tiny South American nation’s food security in the face of environmental hazards related to climate change.
Guyana’s rice industry finds itself at the mercy of extreme weather conditions. Almost all rice is cultivated on the northeast stretch of coast, which is increasingly affected by flooding.
The government believes that the future of the country’s agricultural sustainability may lie in a gradual relocation of food production further south, away from the vulnerable coast.
Guyana’s National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute has conducted trials to see how well rice can adapt to the climate and the environment of the southern grasslands.
“Of the many varieties tried, three of them did well and seemed to be able to thrive in the conditions of the savannahs,” said Clevland Paul, a research scientist at the institute.
Although records suggest rice was once cultivated in the highland savannahs, Paul noted several barriers at present, including an extended drought in the 15,000 square-kilometre Rupununi savannah in the southwest, and the risk of paddy bug infestations. Such problems could lead to lower yields than on the coast.
The challenge for farmers will be to boost rice yields on the savannah close to those on the coast without resorting to expensive fertilisers, Paul said.
The Rice Producers Association has been working with the Guyana Rice Development Board to cultivate rice in Rupununi for five seasons, or about two and a half years, in a project launched by the Ministry of Agriculture with Spanish government funding.
“It is a move that we are pushing at all levels to support indigenous cultivation and also to cultivate new crops in the areas,” said the Rice Producers Association’s general secretary, Dharamkumar Seeraj.
“We are observing the cropping pattern and we have been integrating the rice with bean cultivation,” he said. “We observe how the weather affects these hitherto coastal crops, looking at rainfall patterns and temperature conditions, soil type and so on.”
Seeraj believes that although the soil quality is inferior to that on the coast, the savannah can be used to grow some crops well.
“You could only plant rice in some selected areas, but it can be very viable for beans and peanuts,” he said.
The returns for beans are excellent, but rice grown on the savannah does not yield as much as on the coast, he added.
“While we would average 30 bags (of rice) per acre on the coast, we are averaging 22 bags per acre in the savannahs,” he explained.
An additional challenge is that rice planting must be timed with the onset of the rainy season so that the rainwater irrigates the fields. Problems of irrigation and lower yields make it more expensive to cultivate rice on the savannahs, but there are lower costs associated with moving the rice to market, according to Seeraj.
Although rice is not a staple for people who live on the savannahs, there is a growing market for it in the town of Lethem, on the southern border with Brazil, and rice is currently transported there from the coast at high cost.
That could make rice grown locally on the savannahs competitive with rice cultivated on the coast, Seeraj believes.
“It is also providing jobs and addressing the issue of food security,” he said.
Today, just 80 acres (32 hectares) of rice are being cultivated in the savannah project, compared with 176,000 acres (71,000 hectares) on the coast. But the government aims to expand rice production in the hinterlands by encouraging private investment.
According to the Guyana Rice Development Board, a project funded by Brazilian investors to put thousands of acres of savannah under rice cultivation is nearing approval.
While the Rice Producers Association is not encouraging coastal rice farmers to relocate to the hinterland, it is encouraging savannah farmers to become rice producers.
Seeraj said the buy-in has been excellent among the indigenous peoples of the Rupununi savannah, although there have been some cultural challenges, including the strict timetable required for rice harvesting.
“Cassava harvesting can take place in a less rigid manner, but rice requires that all harvesting is done in one go,” he said.
Coastal farmer Roy Doodnauth said he would not be averse to trying out rice cultivation in the hinterland savannahs, but would not abandon his farm completely.
“My investment is big here and I already have a foundation here. For me, it might be considered a good option to go there and plant, but not to live there permanently,” Doodnauth said.
But he does believe that agriculture - and rice farming in particular - could be successful in a traditionally less suitable environment.
“For any cultivation, drainage and irrigation are two of the most important things,” he said. “Although the weather conditions might be different to the coast, if there is a way for water to come onto the land and be drained off, then rice cultivation is possible in the savannahs.”
Johann Earle is a Georgetown-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.