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Irrigation schemes at Rabacca Farms and Langley Park

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by John Towend Fri May 2, 2014

In 1997, St Vincent and the Grenadines pioneered the use of supplemental irrigation to increase the productivity of bananas, so that we could compete with the low cost producers of Latin America. A total of 12 million euros of EC grant funds were committed to the programme.{{more}}

Central to this was the construction of two major irrigation schemes at Langley Park and Rabacca Farms. For two to three years after their construction, banana production increased significantly, and farmers from as far away as Greiggs and Lauders, sublet plots to take advantage of the irrigation facilities.

These irrigation schemes had one additional advantage – they were gravity fed, using diversion structures at altitude to produce the pressures necessary to drive the water through the system. No expensive imported fossil fuels were needed to keep the systems working.

It was only when the SVBGA collapsed that interest in irrigated agriculture started to wain and farmers could not get the cheap inputs needed to farm more intensively under irrigated conditions.

The schemes carried on with only limited support, until April 11, 2011, when an extraordinary rainfall event occurred, and approximately 2,500 mm was recorded in that area within a 12-hour period. The damage done was extraordinary, particularly at the Rabacca headworks, some several miles up the “dry river”. Although the diversion structure itself remains intact ­– thanks to a good design by experienced CWSA engineers – the access road has been totally washed away and steel pipes literally tossed aside as the river roared through on its way to the sea.

As a result, the fertile lands at Rabacca farms are now producing only rainfed crops and although some water is still available via Langley Park, only 13 per cent of the land is irrigated. Rumour has it that funds have been made available to repair the diversion structures at altitude, but for these irrigation schemes to return to full productivity, much work is needed in other areas, for small holder irrigation is a complex topic.

Major issues which need addressing are as follows:-

Land Tenure

For anyone interested, please get a copy of the book: Land Reform in Small Island States by Karl John. This well written book charts the history of parcelling out estate lands owned by Government – under the Mitchell NDP administration.

Langley Park was the first, followed by Rabacca Farms. In both of these schemes, priority was given to estate workers who had been displaced when Mitchell, as Minister of Agriculture, had closed down the St Vincent sugar industry. However, these farmers were used to earning a wage, and were not used to being “own account” farmers, living by their own agricultural decisions. For this reason, many of the farms were never farmed and subletting arrangements to experienced farmers from Greiggs and Lauders became a popular trend.

Management

Experience world wide has indicated that managers of the irrigation scheme must be respected members of local communities. It is no use having a project manager based in Kingstown. He needs to be Georgetown based or nearby, so that if there is any emergency he and his co-workers can be quickly on the spot.

Irrigation Agronomy

Working out crop water requirements requires careful calculations based on measurements of effective rainfall and crop transpiration. Even though there is a properly maintained meteorological station owned and monitored by CWSA in the area, there is no evidence that the data is used to work out what is needed for each field.

Farmer Involvement

One of the major criticisms of the initial schemes is that farmers felt that they had little involvement in design and formulation of management arrangement for the scheme. One farmer observed “the consultants and engineers just came and did their job and left.”

If the schemes are to be resuscitated, then there must be a much greater level of involvement of farmers involved in the scheme.

Extension Services

For irrigated agriculture – a good rule of thumb is one extension agent per 200 farmers. There is a real need for two irrigation experienced extension officers to be appointed to the Langley Park and Rabacca schemes.

 

Farmer Selection

Irrigated agriculture requires a high standard of crop management and commitment from farmers. Only experienced and committed people should be allocated plots. (These by and large will be known in the area).

Credit

Irrigated agriculture requires lots of TLC (Tender Loving Care). But it also requires a high level of inputs (seed, fertilisers, herbicides, crop protection materials) etc. So, how are poor farmers going to get collateral to obtain credit?

The only way that they are going to do this is if they own the land which they farm – there is no other way!

Redistribution of Lands

A way has to be found whereby idle lands are distributed to only competent and committed farmers, be they young or old. Under the conditions of the original leases this is now legally possible.

Involvement of Politics

It is no secret that the original redistribution of lands did much to keep the NDP in power for some 15+ years. A new redistribution of lands could have similar benefits for an incumbent administration – but this must not be based on patronage, but on sound evaluation on both technical and social grounds of farmers’ capacity and capabilities.

Women Farmers

One fascinating aspect of the irrigation schemes is the number of women farmers that have become involved. Information collected in 2013 indicated that between 55-60 per cent of the plots are now farmed by women. Many are single mothers, who will do anything to earn a living to support their children. And as one group reported to us, “when the going got tough, the men ran off.”

THE WAY AHEAD

It is no secret that the irrigation schemes are in urgent need of rehabilitation. An EU invesment of 12 million euros cannot be just left to decay. But for this to happen requires a serious commitment of Government, for successful irrigation schemes require a management system that works, for the plot sizes to be economic and for the farmers that own them to have security of tenure. Without security of tenure, farmers have no collateral against which to obtain credit. Equally sound support from the Ministry of Agriculture’s extension service in irrigated agriculture is needed. For only when the above issues are resolved will the full potential of irrigated, high value agriculture be realised in St Vincent. And with the new international airport on the windward side, this opens up exciting potential for the export of irrigated high value agricultural and horticultural produce.

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