Colombia’s National Rice Growers Federation (FEDEARROZ) claims to have already lost some 42,000 acres of farmland due to drought, with more dry months expected as the “El Niño” weather phenomenon approaches this fall.
The problem, according to FEDEARROZ President Rafael Hernandez, has grown particularly bad in the central Bajo Cauca region and drought-stricken northeast of the country, especially in the states of Cesar and La Guajira, where acute water shortages have exarcebated a stark human rights situation amid local indigenous populations.
Losses have already been estimated at around $36 million, at least $15.5 of which goes directly to farmers, he said. If measures aren’t taken by the government soon, Hernandez warned, harvests of some 370,000 acres could be at risk in the similarly affected eastern plains region, should El Niño bring more dry spells during the usually wet Colombian fall and winter months.
“The scariest thing, appart from the damages ot the harvest, is that if the El Niño is as bad as they have announced it will be this semester, we’re not going to be able to plant in those regions,” he said.
“This is going to become a complicated social issue, because the growers have had important losses.”
FEDEARROZ already expects 50,000 acres of farmland to be left unplanted this coming season, but a bad dry season could mean more multi-million dollars for growers, distributors, and sellers, as well as 48,000 or more lost jobs, according to FEDEARROZ figures.
“Maybe it will rain in September in October [traditionally rainy months in the northeast], but based off of the announcement about the phenomenon, that’s what we think can be lost,” said Hernandez.
Farmers will have no way of knowing exactly how bad things have gotten until the late winter and early spring, when the harvest season begins for crops planted this fall. Until then, FEDEARROZ officials will be particularly worried about the effects of El Niño on the major inter-Andean rice-growing regions to the southwest of the country, which have not been predicted as clearly by weather experts.
For now, most of the largest producing states have experienced typical weather, with almost one million acres being harvested as usual. “The problem, however, is that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the second half of the year,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez said that FEDEARROZ has made repeated requests to the government for actions to be taken, and rice farmers took a particularly active role in recent national agrarian strikes, demanding an end to contraband imports from Ecuador and Venezuela, among other things.
But while the government has been relatively quick to lend aid to the country’s iconic coffee sector, rice growers have been frustrated by a lack of action from Bogota, said Hernandez, who also pointed to the relatively poor public allocation of water resources compared to other strong rice-growing economies.
Japan, for example, has 70 water reservoirs for every four square miles of rice crop, according to Hernandez. Colombia, meanwhile, has 0.4.
“That’s why we’ve insisted so much to the government on the need for [water] districts, for reservoirs and dams to store the water that flows over in winter and use it during these seasons,” he said.
In the future, said Hernandez, better planning will be needed in order to fix deep structural weaknesss in the larger agrarian sector and compensate with the initial effects of a changing global climate.
“Climate change is here to stay. If the government doesn’t take steps to build these reservoirs for planting regions, whether through concession or public-private alliances, in a not so distant future the country is going to start to have problems with food shortages.”
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