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Dishing rice for rural livelihoods – is it the right farming option for rural Fiji communities?

Display Date: 5/2/11

This article was originally published in the APR Newsletter ‘Making a Difference in Asia and the Pacific’, Issue 37, in May/June 2011.
Author: Vikash Kumar

Mr Singh, a new rice farmer in his newly prepared field

Rice has quietly settled itself into many people’s lives in the Pacific, including the rural population who traditionally depended on crops such as taro, cassava and breadfruit as staples. As a major staple crop consumed by all communities in Fiji now, it is no wonder that rice import figures stand at Fijian dollar (FJ$) $40 million (US$23 million) annually. In 2009 Fiji imported 30 000 tons of rice, which accounted for 1.2 per cent of Fiji’s total import spending. Local farmers are struggling to meet domestic demands for rice.

In a bid to reduce rice import bills, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a rice revitalization and import substitute programme to expand domestic rice production. According to Prasad and Narayan (2005), “Rice is a small rural-based industry in Fiji, and its contribution to GDP and national welfare is insignificant.” However, the benefits to rural smallholder farmers could be significant both in terms of income and food security.

Suitable land ready for planting rice

A group of farmers working with the Mainstreaming of Rural Development Innovations Programme (MORDI), funded by IFAD, joined the Ministry’s initiative in taking up rice farming as an additional crop. Key factors that motivated these farmers included the Government’s heavily subsidized support, higher demands for and better returns from rice, availability of suitable land and better yields, stable prices compared to traditional crops, better shelf life, and declining demand for and returns from traditional crops. With issues of climate change being more real than ever, rice farming has created opportunities for farmers to diversify their income, thus spreading their risks and reducing their heavy dependency on traditional crops.

In August 2010, the group harvested 2 tons of rice, which 14 households shared. The group has since produced two more batches of crop which they have sold through a major rice distributor. This sweet success has not come easy. The farmers faced and continue to face major hurdles that can threaten their ability to continue rice farming. Rice farming is a new venture for these often poorly supported farmers. Their lack of knowledge and skills on the full range of issues with rice farming has yet to be addressed.

Potential problems from rice cultivation

  • Rice farming requires heavier investment and maintenance costs of tools and equipment, irrigation and drainage systems as well as pest and disease management.
  • Being labour-intensive, rice farming is something that most native Pacific farmers are not able to sustain over a long period.
  • Although the Government is providing support, it will not be sustainable in the long run. The chances of these farms collapsing are high once Government intervention is withdrawn (as was seen in the 1970s and 1980s).
  • Environmental damage could be caused by diverted water courses and irrigation channels, improper soil management, fertilizer use and sedimentation of rivers and coastal areas.
  • Crop losses to pests and climatic factors are also important issues to consider given the lack of storage infrastructure in most of these rural areas.
  • There is the risk of a possible loss of interest in traditional crops. As more and more land is used for rice farming, traditional crops could be given less priority.

 

New Government-subsidised irrigation channel
NGO, media and government representatives during one of their frequent visits to rice farmers to encourage them
Traditional rice-threshing tool, which is still used in rural communities

Stakeholders need to carefully consider the implications of production, diversification and the environmental aspects of rice farming on these rural populations. Care must be taken to allocate only a certain amount of land for rice farming to ensure that suitable land is reserved for traditional crops. Farmers should continue to plant and maintain traditional crops, as these crops are much better acclimatized to the local conditions and local cultivation knowledge and skills. Traditional crops should not be forsaken, as it has a clear advantage with respect to nutrition, agronomy and economic, environmental and social aspects (Manley, 2008). An equal focus should be maintained on improving agricultural productivity in traditional crops and their value chain development.

A clear long-term national rice industry development plan must be drawn up, taking into account potential growth, production, demand, and support structure and markets. Government incentives for a relatively longer period of time are essential for the rice industry to grow stronger. Thereafter a gradual phase-out strategy would provide a buffer for the industry to stabilize itself. Beyond the phase-out period, technical assistance, training and extension services must continue so that local expert farmers are empowered to take on greater mentorship roles.

Market expansion and produce collection systems and strategies must be carefully studied and put in place. With the expansion in production, such systems will help channel produce to consumers more efficiently and effectively. Central community storage systems must be put in place to minimize costs to individual farmers who otherwise would construct their own substandard storage facilities, risking crop losses.

Local farmer networks must be created and strengthened so that farmers can help each other not only with rice crops but other traditional crop production. Local trust funds could be created where a certain percentage of income from rice is kept separately as a maintenance fund for drainage and irrigation channels, important tools and equipment, and pest and disease management.

It is encouraging that these rural communities are adapting and diversifying their production as climatic conditions and consumption and demand patterns are changing. However, this must be done with great caution and careful planning. Even though rice farming in rural Fiji appears to be heading in a positive direction, it is important for the communities, the farmers and the Government to carefully consider all aspects of rice farming to ensure long-term sustainability, minimal environmental damage and the least negative impact on traditional crops.

Vikash Kumar, MORDI Learning Unit Coordinator

Useful links:

Time to go back to our roots? Reducing dependence on imported food in the Pacific
Contribution of the rice industry to Fiji’s economy : implication of a plan to increase rice production
Agriculture Strategic Development Plan 2010-2012

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