POMEROON, Guyana (AlertNet) - Vilma de Silva has been a farmer for 31 years but is discovering she still has plenty to learn as climate change brings increasingly erratic weather.
Intense and unpredictable periods of rain have ruined crops and threatened livelihoods in the northwest of this South American nation. Farmers like de Silva are fighting back with strategies ranging from flood-resistant crops to irrigation systems.
“We always have severe rainfall where we get flooding and we lose a lot of the crops,” said de Silva, who lives along the Pomeroon River. While some cash crops can be successfully replanted, others don’t survive periods of bad weather, she said.
“Avocadoes and oranges and things like that tend to get shaken and sometimes we don’t have a proper crop for the entire year because of the heaviness of the rains,” said de Silva, whose farm was flooded for two weeks over the past year.
Drought has also been an increasing problem in the region – one de Silva doesn’t recall occurring when she was young.
Thanks to more extended drought periods, “I lost over 500 avocado trees over a five-year period. I replanted but still have some losses every year, 25 to 30 trees,” she said.
SWITCH TO COCONUTS
To cope with the continuing weather-related losses, de Silva is now switching to a more resilient crop – coconuts – and bottling coconut water to sell.
“That is the only crop that is not challenged by the weather,” she said.
De Silva also is finding support from a women’s cottage industry group, whose members are farmers and cottage manufacturers. Many of the women have suffered financial hardship as a consequence of increasingly erratic weather conditions.
“When you lose a crop, your expenses are still there. So whatever is left on the farm (you) have to make do with, whether it is just plantains or cassavas,” she explained.
To deal with the more challenging weather conditions, the women’s group has built a mesh-net and plastic shade house in which the members grow a variety of high-yield crops – such as tomatoes, lettuce and celery. The vegetables, which are supported off the ground to protect them from flooding, provide a reliable income.
“With the shade house, the women are able to reap almost all of the crops, and this has boosted their earnings significantly,” de Silva said.
Rosamund Benn, who has been a farmer for 30 years in the area, explained how women have adapted their crops and methods to deal with changing conditions.
MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND
“We have coconuts, bananas and plantains, as well as vegetables. When the floods come during the rainy season we normally move to higher ground. We go on the dam and we farm our vegetables there. When the water subsides we come back on the low lands,” Benn said.
Benn has learned from experience. During the floods of 2005 and 2006, she lost about five acres of vegetables. After that, she dug deeper drains around her land. When floods came again, the water drained away quickly, saving her crops.
“What we are seeing now is that you can no longer predict the weather. We used to get rain in the May-June period but now the rain comes whenever, however, and it is very heavy. When the sun comes out after the rain falls, it is so hot it is like the rains never came,” Benn said.
“You have to plant whenever the weather gives you a chance to do so,” added Jacinta Gonsalves, a farmer who sells greens that she grows at a market in the Pomeroon region.
Another farmer, Pamela Daniels, said that over the past year and a half she has learned to use her irrigation system pumps to extract excess rainfall from her fields.
“Without the use of pumps to regulate the flow of water to the farm, we could not have made it through the floods,” she said.
“We don’t have a problem with the cash crops because we regulate the water so that if it is too much, we can drain it, or if it is too little we can pump water in.”
Daniels said that other farmers have visited her to learn about the system and adopt it for their own land.
Guyana’s agriculture minister, Robert Persaud, acknowledges the impact changing climatic conditions in Guyana. He said that by March of this year the country had already received at least 70 percent more rain than normal for the period.
Nevertheless, Persaud maintains that farmers in the Pomeroon region have great agricultural potential, and that the government is committed to working with them to make their activities more viable.
He urged farmers to ensure the progress they have made is not eroded because of the changing weather, saying they should “live, adjust and adapt to changing conditions.”
Johann Earle is a Georgetown-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.