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

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Dreams of Being a Regional Breadbasket

Elizabeth Roebling

SANTO DOMINGO, Oct 1 2008 (IPS) - On the second day of a conference here on agricultural development, Dr. Rene Villarreal awakened hundreds of technicians and farmers from a siesta, leaving the dais and walking from table to table, using a remote microphone.

The high valley of Constanza is the heart of the Dominican Republic's high-tech agricultural production.  Credit: Elizabeth Roebling/IPS

The high valley of Constanza is the heart of the Dominican Republic's high-tech agricultural production. Credit: Elizabeth Roebling/IPS

The audience of over 200 had absorbed 10 hours of presentations the day before, complete with graphs and power point presentations on two overhead screens.

Villareal, director of the Mexico-based Centre of Intellectual Capital and Competitiveness (CECIC), energised the drowsy crowd: "You should no longer think of yourselves as farmers. You are agricultural businessmen."

He had the room laughing with a story about talking to Mexican farmers about the small bananas that are sold in the upscale sections U.S. food markets as "fig" bananas.

"How do you market these bananas?" he asked the farmers.

The local farmers looked at him in disbelief. "We don't. We feed them to the pigs."

It was the U.S. distributors who had learned how to sell the small bananas to U.S. consumers as the perfect size for a child's backpack.

In his slide show, Villareal presented the audience with a clear picture of the difference between the Asian business model, which he termed "cooperative competition", vs. the traditional model, or "Darwinian competition". One side had geese flying in a random pattern, the other side had them in the V-shaped pattern in which geese actually fly, reducing the impact of headwinds and increasing their velocity.

"We are in a global economy," he said at the conference organised by IICA (Instito Interamerican de Cooperacion para la Agricultura). "That means that we have also a globalisation of markets, and of information. We also have a global factory."

Villareal is enthusiastic about the farming sector of the Dominican Republic. "This country has more opportunities for agricultural exportation than Mexico, more potential for development. Mexico does not have solid state support for its farming sectors. That is growing now. But the Dominican Republic has better access to other markets, to the Caribbean, to the East Coast of the United States."

Manual Gonzalez Tejera, a technical advisor for the secretary of agriculture, gave this overview of farming in the Dominican Republic, which is far more robust than in many other Caribbean states that face hefty food import bills.

"We grow practically everything that we eat in this country, about 85 percent, but we need certain products to complement our diet. We import wheat to produce flour. We also import corn and soy for feeding our pigs and chickens. Our milk production right now is not sufficient to supply our local need."

He said that an incentive is now paid to local producers, and local milk production has grown over the past year from 350 million litres to 650 million litres.

"The main hurdle that we have to overcome is in the area of financing. First, the government has to create a climate of confidence in the banks. The number of loans to the farming sector from the Central Bank has gone down, year after year. We need the banks to channel their loans to the Dominican countryside. We are working on increasing the insurance for the farming sector," he said.

When asked about using land for the production of biodeisel, Gonzalez was adamant that no land be taken from food production. "We also have land that can be used for growing plants for biodeisel. There are several jatropha projects in the South, on marginal land, which look promising as a way to both reduce poverty and reduce the costs for food. We could transform 20,000 or 30,000 hectares of our sugar cane production into ethanol, to satisfy the initial local demand."

ICCA has been operational for 65 years and gives technical assistance both to the government and to farmers in the field. It has helped the government of the Dominican Republic introduce reforms to aid the farming sector by undertaking professional programmes on agribusiness.

These reforms include raising standards on food and animal safety as well as developing plans for proper resource management. ICCA also provides technical assistance to farmers in the field, not only in their rural communities but at conferences like this one in the capital.

Five farmers sat at one of the back tables. They had come from the far northeast, the Samana Peninsula. One grew sweet potatoes, another one passion fruit.

"We need help in getting our produce to market," one said. "We produce more than we can sell. There is not enough demand where we are. The hotels in the area do not buy our entire production. The cruise ships do not buy any of it. Our roads are bad."

Andres Reys, president of an organisation of 28 small rice companies, said that his group owns 22 factories among them. He spoke of the difficulties of the small farmers.

"The importation of American rice is dangerous to us since we cannot compete with rice which is heavily subsidised by the U.S. government. The price of production has gone up. Since January, the price of agrochemicals has gone up 200 percent," Reys said.

"We cannot make these chemicals here. But one group is starting to use an organic fertiliser made from sugar cane which is healthy and helps to keep down environmental pollution," he added.

Reys said that of the 22 factories which the consortium owns, 15 are closed due to lack of capital. The group is waiting for an answer to a funding request which it has made to the government.

"Our factories have equipment which is 50 years old," he noted.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags