Drought sapping Jamaica farmers

The Rural Jamaica Agricultural Development Authority estimates that farmers lost close to $270 million last year as a result of drought in Trelawny, St. Elizabeth, Clarendon, Portland and St. Thomas.

While Government, through its National Irrigation Development Plan, is on a mission to increase the island’s total irrigated areas by 60 per cent, large pockets of farmlands, especially in some of the main cultivation belts, still depend primarily on rainfall.

“It is really rough for us in the drought period,” said Rettina Myers, a vegetable farmer from Genus, St. Elizabeth. “To keep our farms from being wiped out, we have to buy water at the very expensive price of $5,000 to $7,000 per truckload.”

According to a number of farmers in Rose Hall, Potsdam, Ballards Valley and Red Bank in St. Elizabeth and other areas such as Wait-a-Bit in Trelawny, the drought conditions, which severely affected both parishes last year, were particularly devastating to crops such as tomato, carrot, sweet pepper, broccoli, cucumber, scallion and pumpkin, reports the Jamaica Gleaner.

“I am extremely disappointed that no irrigation schemes are being planned for my section of Trelawny,” complained Wait-a-Bit yam farmer Winston Williams. “When we get the real rough drought, we end up spending more money buying water than we get from our crops.”

In St. James, where the new Seven Rivers Irrigation Scheme is poised to come on stream soon, Glendon Harris, the president of the western branch of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, is calling for a comprehensive irrigation plan for the parish’s farming zones.

“We need more systems, especially in the breadbasket areas such as Garlands, Niagara and Mocho,” he said. “If we are to fully maximise our farming capabilities, we must have a comprehensive irrigation plan for the entire farming belt.”

With the announcement of a US$106.3 million (J$6.9 billion) National Irrigation Development Plan, a number of areas have been earmarked for new irrigation projects. Farming communities in Portland, St. Catherine, Clarendon and St. Ann are now on the verge of getting improved water supply as a result of an $18 million project funded by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)/Italian government.

In his contribution to the 2006 Budget Debate, Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke, who has been given the portfolio for water in the new Portia Simpson Miller-led administration, has made it clear that bringing more lands into the irrigation policy is going to be integral to Government’s plans for agricultural development.

“To advance the National Irrigation Development Plan, we are commencing this year, the construction and rehabilitation of an additional five schemes, in conjunction with the Inter-American Development Bank,” Minister Clarke told Parliament in April. “These schemes will be built or rehabilitated in Yallahs, St. Thomas; New Forest/Duff House in Manchester; Colbeck and St. Dorothy in St. Catherine; and Essex Valley, St. Elizabeth.”

But even as Government continues to push its irrigation policy, a number of prominent voices, including former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, believe more can be done to reclaim lands for agriculture through irrigation.

“Productive lands need water for irrigation. St. Catherine alone has 12,000 acres of land which are idle because of a lack of irrigation,” Mr. Seaga stated just over a month ago in his weekly column in The Sunday Gleaner. “A plan developed by Agro 21 in the late 1980s mapped out the construction of a 500-acre mega reservoir, several times the size of the Mona reservoir, which would trap the flood waters of the Rio Cobre, 80 per cent of which now flows to the sea in times of flood rains,” he said.

The use of arable and irrigable lands in St. James that are suitable for mechanisation and instead are being used for real estate development has not found favour with Mr. Harris.

“Irrigation would not be a problem in the lowlands so it is a real pity that some of these lands are being used for housing development,” lamented Mr. Harris. “With these arable lands gone, the best the Government can do is to give us more irrigation schemes in the main farming areas.”

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