Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: A High-Tech Garden of Eden

Elizabeth Eames Roebling

CONSTANZA, Oct 8 2008 (IPS) - Traffic crews on the switchback road signal drivers down to one lane as workers spray concrete on the mountain barrier to prevent landslides. The posted speed limit on the road to the 1,300-metre-high valley of Constanza, three hours north of the capital of Santo Domingo, often drops to 20 km an hour as the road winds along the high mountain ridges.

Trucks wind their way through the mountain passes of Constanza bearing fresh produce for market and export.  Credit: Elizabeth Eames Roebling/IPS

Trucks wind their way through the mountain passes of Constanza bearing fresh produce for market and export. Credit: Elizabeth Eames Roebling/IPS

It is essential to keep this road in good repair since the heavy diesel trucks which pass over it carry more than 90 percent of the vegetables produced in the Dominican Republic.

While sugarcane remains the nation's most important cash crop, Constanza is the heart of its high-tech agricultural production. Unlike many other Caribbean islands that are heavily dependent on expensive imports, the Dominican Republic grows about 85 percent of its own food.

With global fuel prices doubling over the past year, in turn pushing up the cost of key commodities like wheat, corn and barley, the new mantra among policy-makers across the region has been how to replicate and expand on successful local farming models – like Constanza.

The area was first developed in the 1950s, when then dictator Raphael Trujillo invited 50 Japanese farming families to settle there and help industrialise the agriculture production.

Their legacy is seen today in the sweeping irrigated fields of potatoes, garlic, carrots, strawberries, cilantro, onions, tomatoes, beans, corn, broccoli, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, leeks, celery, beets, cabbages and flowers that supply not only the population of 9 million people of this nation, but also the vast appetite of its tourist hotels and a growing export business.

The hanging moss from the cedar trees, the occasional palm tree and the egrets in the fields are the only indications that this valley is in the tropics and not in Europe or the United States. Although it is close to Pico Duarte, the Caribbean's highest mountain at 3,175 metres and which is climbed by more than 3,000 people every year, Constanza is not yet devoted to tourism.

Both a high waterfall and a cave with Taino Indian writings on the walls are found nearby, but there are no tours offering access. Nor are there hiking trails, campgrounds, mountain bikes or horseback tours for rent in this valley whose clear mountain air offers a welcome respite from the summer heat.

Its few hotels are filled on weekends only, mainly by Dominicans escaping the heat of the capital. Winter temperatures here can go below the freezing mark and are normally 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding low lying areas. The majority of the population of 80,000 here is at work in the fields by 7:30 every morning.

Virgilio Rosado, a native of Constanza, who works as an agricultural advisor for PACTA, an NGO funded by a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank, speaks with pride of his home.

"We are the only location like this in all of the Caribbean," he told IPS. "Our production here is extremely advanced. Ten years ago, we had 12,000 tareas [1 tarea equals 629 metres] in agricultural production. Now we have only 7,000 but at a much higher intensity, with full irrigation systems and sophisticated crop rotation and fertilisation. We produce more food now on less land than we did 10 years ago."

On a tour of the valley, neatly divided into small and large fields by barbed wire fences, as the aroma of cilantro fills the air, Rosado explains the irrigation systems, which operate from water pumped from a neighbouring river into canals and then into holding ponds.

"We still are getting help from the government of Japan. They were the first who built these irrigation canals and holding ponds and demonstrated the irrigation systems," he said.

The sprinklers douse a field of cabbages. "With this system, the vegetables themselves are watered, not just the ground. Every drop is measured. Much less water is used," Rosado explained.

Noting that almost every field has an irrigation system in place, Rosado said: "With three tareas of land, a family can support themselves. A good irrigation system costs 4,600 pesos (135 U.S. dollars) for 200 metres and will last for 10 years. The farmer can install it himself. We give him the technical assistance on how to do that and how to use it."

Rosado notes that the land in Constanza is expensive now: "It would cost at least one million pesos for 10 tareas." But he notes, "There is a land nearby in other valleys and land that has not yet been put into cultivation, which would be less expensive. We have the capacity to greatly increase production."

Constanza is always in production and harvest. Rosado notes, "Everyone rotates their crops. We have learned that and give anyone who asks for it expert advice. Everyone grows a bit of everything, although some may specialise in one or two crops. That corn field is being grown just to nourish the field. It will be plowed under to feed the soil."

The price of gasoline is now at 197.5 (5.80 dollars) pesos per gallon which affects the cost of production. "All the water must be pumped from the canals or holding ponds," said Rosado, pointing to the small pumps at the side of one pond.

Asked about gravity-fed systems, Rosado said, "Some farmers have installed some systems for that but not many. You still have to pump the water. And the price of oil also affects the price of fertiliser and transportation."

Hugo Arriasa Morales, of NRECA International, an NGO which works on installing rural energy systems, says that solar energy can help reduce the costs of production.

"We are working to install a small hydroelectric system in Constanza. And if a group of farmers, perhaps 20, combine for a solar system, we can help them greatly reduce costs of production," he said.

There are a few apple orchards in the high mountains, further away, but most of the mountain land that is not still forested is used for cattle grazing. Rosado notes "the weather is getting warmer so that the farmers are putting more land into farming production. The government's farming bank gives them low interest loans for seeds at 1 percent interest."

Perhaps because he himself is an expert in the risks of farming, Rosado prefers cattle raising. "I have eight head now. I prefer it. It is sure and secure. Less work. Less risk."

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