Concerns raised over use of pesticides, fertilizers on Rupununi mega-farm

The amount of pesticides and fertilizers being used at the Santa Fe mega-farm in the Rupununi is troubling because of the impact it could have on the environment and the region’s budding eco-tourism sector, sustainable development advocate Sydney Allicock says.

“We are concerned,” said Allicock, who sits on several boards in the area such as the North Rupu-nuni District Development Board (NRDDB) and who is also a member of parliament as well as a director of the Surama eco-lodge. He said villagers had questioned representatives of the farm, which is operated by the Simpson Group of Companies out of Barbados, at a meeting last year and were told that they should not be fearful because the company was using expert knowledge from Brazil and India.

Since then, Allicock said, they have seen reports where the project was hailed as a success with mention being made that three times the amount of fertilizers and pesticides than on the coast were being used on the farm which borders the wetlands of the north Rupununi. The Government Information Agency (GINA) reported last year that given the soil type, the AR Irja 424 variety of rice being cultivated on the farm required greater fertilizer application which meant using three times the fertiliser regimen applied on the coastland as well as a greater use of pesticides. Santa Fe has declined requests by Stabroek News for an interview on its investment and all the information thus far on it has been provided by GINA.

Allicock said they had sought answers from the company. “What sort of pesticides, what sort of fertilizers they used? Up to now they are still to tell us the name” of the chemicals being used, he said. “I hope it would not bring damage but it’s scary to see what they are doing,” he added.

The parliamentarian has posed questions in the National Assembly directed to Minister of Agriculture Dr Leslie Ramsammy asking about the type of insecticide and fertilizer that were/are being used at the Santa Fe farm and whether any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was done. Director of the Environmental Protection Agency Dr Inderjit Ramdass had previously told Stabroek News that no EIA was done.

Allicock also wants to know whether the amount of chemicals used would be a threat to the eco-system of the wetlands of the north Rupununi in the rainy season.

He pointed out that while the runoff from the farm drains into the Ireng River, during the rainy season, particularly when the rains are especially heavy, it is a different story. “When it overflows, the whole area is flooded meaning if there is any sort of pesticide used, it could trickle down posing a threat to the eco-system,” Allicock said, adding that the budding eco-tourism sector of the area would also be affected. He also pointed out that the runoff would flow into the tributaries of the Rupununi River which flow into the Essequibo River.

Further, he said, Guyana is growing as a bird-watching destination and the Rupununi has some “hot” species and the groups that come are getting bigger and any damage to the eco-system would have impacts for species. “These are concerns for us in the tourism sector,” he said. “When environmentalists and birders come, they notice these things.”

Such disturbances, Allicock said, are of concern to the communities of the north Rupununi. “That would be a threat to what we understand to be low carbon development,” he said, while adding that they need to get more information but are not getting it. While there may be benefits, there needs to be more interaction, he said.

Last June, GINA reported that the Santa Fe farm had begun the harvesting of paddy and was preparing for a significant expansion of planting. The report said that of the 100 acres harvested at the time, the farm has achieved nine tonnes of wet paddy per acre. This translates to about seven tonnes of dry paddy per acre, similar to what obtains on the coast.

The next rice crop was expected to see about 1,000 acres of rice cultivated, 980 acres more than what was planted in the first crop. The farm also planned to get into soya bean cultivation as well as the rearing of beef and dairy animals on 30 acres of the farmland. It is hoped that the success of the Santa Fe venture will serve as an incentive not only to government, but also to the large-scale private rice producers, GINA had said. Minister of Agriculture Dr Leslie Ramsammy had also told Stabroek News that the firm has plans to expand eventually to 30,000 acres and “government is also looking favourably at giving them that acreage as it will yield tremendous benefits for us.”

The company had envisioned exporting rice to Brazil. But despite trade agreements with Brazil, agricultural exports from Guyana have been restricted. Up to December, the issue was raised and it was reported that Guyana has been engaging with the Brazilian agricultural authorities to resolve the sanitary and phytosanitary issues. It was stated that difficulties emerged when Santa Fe started cultivating rice, corn, soya and cassava for export to Brazil and the issues with cross border trade would need to be resolved soon to facilitate exports. If the discussions with the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture are unsuccessful, it was then envisioned that Guyana would engage with the Ministry of Foreign Trade.  It is not clear if Santa Fe has managed to export any rice to Brazil.

Meantime, Allicock recalled that from the inception, when they learnt that rice was to be grown, the people were worried. He cited the experience in Brazil and the consequence on the Macushi indigenous people of the area. He noted too that the soils of the Rupununi are not very fertile and suited for rice. “We were under the impression that to have production of rice in abundance, they would have to use fertilizers and pesticides,” he said.

Further, he said, in Brazil, wildlife such as ducks that descended on the rice fields were poisoned in large numbers and this even affected the duck population that nested on the Guyana side since some of the Brazilian farms are right across the border. Allicock said that some youths from the community worked on the farms in Brazil and this was what they observed.

Allicock emphasized that apart from the rice, they had no concerns about the other crops being grown. He said, however, that cassava, should have been the crop to be developed. “Cassava uses less fertilizer and pesticides,” he said, while noting its importance to indigenous communities. He pointed out that it also has a market and needs to be promoted as an industry. Rice cultivation should remain on the coast where it is cheaper to produce, he said. “Rice is not the right thing. Rice is not the crop for the Rupununi.”

The parliamentarian also said that there were claims that many people would get jobs and while some have been employed and are grateful given the scarcity of jobs in the area, there needs to be development that takes into ac-count the indigenous people instead of them “helping to destroy” the ecosystem without knowing it,.

The community advocate said that he prefers to see money from Guyana’s REDD+ forest protection programme to be used from community-based agriculture such as the rice project at Moco-Moco with such crops being grown on a small scale to satisfy the needs of the community with the excess being sold. Cassava is also a product that should be promoted, he said.

Allicock said the indigenous people survived because of their respect for nature. “Our way is to work with nature and not against nature,” he said. However, he noted that others do not think that way. “You think about the money but you don’t think about the consequences,” he said.

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