Measures being drawn up to create a more diversified and climate-resilient agricultural sector in Guyana include shifting its agricultural focus inland, a greater variety of produce, and further investment in infrastructure
Earlier this month, Guyana’s public and private sectors came together to discuss how future collaborations could add greater momentum to the future development of agriculture in the region. Members of the Private Sector Commission (PSC), headed by Chair of the Agriculture Sub-Committee Annette Arjoon-Martins, met with heads at the Ministry of Agriculture to look at returning Guyana to its mid-1900s position as breadbasket of the region through better connectivity with Caribbean states and developing new agricultural areas in the country.
During the meeting, Agriculture Minister Noel Holder highlighted the government’s plans for the sector, which primarily target the shifting of its agricultural base from the densely populated coastal areas to the Intermediate and Rupununi savannahs.
“Guyana covers some 83,000 square miles, however 80% or more of the population lives on a piece of land approximately 250 miles long and 30 miles wide. This area is at, or below, sea level, so therefore it is subject to the ravages of climate change,” explains the minister.
Despite being located on the South American mainland, Guyana holds status as a Small Island Development State (SIDS) due to its vulnerable low-lying coastal lands leaving it susceptible to natural disasters caused by climate change. In fact, last year Guyana recorded two of its highest-ever rainfalls days: on one occasion it was deluged by 10 inches of rain in 13 hours, and doused by around 8.5 inches in 20 hours on another.
The push to increase agricultural activities inland is therefore understandably to alleviate population pressure on coastal resources and take advantage of huge natural wealth inland. A study published in February 2015 in the International Journal of Agricultural Research and Review stated the savannas have “about 50,000 hectares (around 200 square miles) of soils with fair to good potential for agricultural development.” It also says Guyana has around 400,000 hectares of arable land, but most of it lies below sea level.
“We have chosen these [savannah] locations for agricultural development because Guyana is highly forested and the mood of the world at present considers clearing of forestland for agricultural purposes as contraindicated. You really need to preserve your forests. In fact we can probably get carbon credits from not over-harvesting our forests.”
Guyana has one of the highest proportions of forest cover of any country in the world, thanks in large part to historically low rates of deforestation. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the total land area comprises 71% forest and 17% of “other wooded land.” In 1990, the FAO said the rate of deforestation in Guyana was zero, and although it has risen since then, it is still in the hundredths of a percentage point, and falling.
In addition to shifting agricultural expansion further inland, the government is aiming to promote the expansion of non-traditional agricultural production, such as coconuts, fruits and spices. Diversification away from its two main crops, rice and sugar cane, is being taken seriously: the government hopes to see a 25% increase in the exports of non-traditional agricultural products in the next five years. Specifically, agricultural sectors that are being singled out for development by expanding the amount of available farmland are livestock, and particularly beef production, in which Guyana is already self-sufficient; orchard crops, such as citrus fruits; and corn and soybean production, both of which it has to import at present.
The Agriculture Minister believes the vast abundance of land could open the way to Guyana leading the region in organic farming, and feed into greater exports of organic produce to the US and Europe, where demand is high. “Our cattle could all be grass fed – organic cattle, without having to use hormones and so on to boost production and productivity,” comments Mr Holder.
The government also hopes to increase of aromatic rice production, “which will add to the crop production in rice sector at a higher end of the value chain,” said President David Grainger in his parliamentary address on October 13, 2016.
Calls for infrastructure
The physical challenges faced by farmers in getting their product to market are also being tackled, with moves to improve infrastructure. Earlier this year, in July, as the President opened two farm-to-market roads in Parika, he said Guyana could be answer to Caricom’s high food import bills, and emphasized the importance of investments in infrastructural development in the agriculture sector.
“I have invited regional leaders to invest in Guyana, including investing in Guyana’s vast agricultural potential. The countries of the Caribbean have the capital. We have the land and freshwater. There is no reason why we should not engage in a partnership aimed to increasing agricultural output to help achieve food security in the Caribbean,” he said.
“International food prices have been declining for the major traded agricultural products and are at the lowest levels since 2009. Yet, the food import bill of Caricom has been rising and stands, today, at over US$4 billion annually. Caricom’s food insecurity must be reversed if the Caribbean is to survive. Guyana’s farmers can contribute to regional food security by increasing agricultural output. Caribbean leaders are looking to Guyana as the new horizon for agricultural development.”