Developing irrigation in Belize continues to be an acute challenge, with public irrigation systems almost non-existent. The sector has been completely excluded from the country's water policies, which are already complicated by the fact that they are overseen by four separate ministries.
To make matters worse, the country suffers from high levels of soil acidity, poor drainage conditions and flooding caused by tropical storms and hurricanes.
In response to these daunting conditions, the agriculture and fisheries ministry, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is working to create a new irrigation policy to address many of the issues limiting irrigation development.
BNamericas spoke with the ministry's program coordinator, Ricardo Thompson, to find out more about the new policy and efforts to increase private investment in irrigation.
BNamericas: What would you say are currently the main challenges to irrigation in Belize?
Thompson: We have a very small irrigation unit that was established three years ago, comprised of two technicians. And as far as technical expertise in the country's private sector, we have one or two engineers. But there is a lot of room for growth in order to really meet the country's needs. These include water harvesting, drainage, irrigation, and more efficiently irrigated fields that get the best return.
BNamericas: Can you give us an overview of the proposed irrigation policy?
Thompson: Over the years, Belize has seen an increase in irrigation as we are growing more green crops and vegetables, and the climate and weather are no longer predictable, so a lot of the time farmers either don't have irrigation or lose their crops.
Because of that, the need for irrigation has exploded, so the agriculture and fisheries ministry has begun creating a policy and strategy that gives us a roadmap for systematic development of irrigation and drainage in the country.
We essentially aim to form an irrigation policy that supports an agriculture sector geared toward the production of commodities for export. Another factor is gearing up for the anticipated effects of climate change.
We anticipate that by the end of October or November we will have a final draft of the policy.
BNamericas: What are the policy's future goals and long-term strategies?
Thompson: We want to ensure there is security for the country in this sector and that the policy will contribute to income generation and foreign exchange earnings and savings, growing production of commodities for local consumption or for exports.
BNamericas: What is FAO's role in developing the new policy?
Thompson: We requested technical assistance from FAO and they were very forthcoming. We've had two missions with consultants who have come to Belize and looked at what's happening, and based on that they're developing a strategy.
FAO has provided assistance with both local and international consultants, and they're working hand in hand with the public and private sector here in Belize to implement this strategy.
BNamericas: How are the public and private sectors working together to improve irrigation?
Thompson: The kind of collaboration we see between the private and public sector is setting up an enabling environment so that we can make the investment that is required.
The private sector makes the necessary investments as far as irrigation is concerned. For instance, an overhead lateral sprinkler system for beans and corn is a necessary system for these crops. The private sector has no problem implementing this system.
But then when you look at massive infrastructure such as drainage, this requires government intervention. That is where we can see a hybrid, public-private investment in macro infrastructure. It's the same with roads and ports, everybody needs them to facilitate exports.
This is about much more than getting water to fields - the story doesn't end with just establishing irrigation systems, but rather supplying a commodity and economic enterprises to make sure the economy is functioning well.
BNamericas: So this program aims to focus equally on public and private integration?
Thompson: Yes, it has to be a dual effort. It cannot be just public or just private. But that depends on how well we can get a hybrid of these two.
BNamericas: How do you plan to engage stakeholders in the development of this policy?
Thompson: Well there are different levels of engagement. One is the formation of the policy; we need to make sure this involves public consultation, which is taking place.
At the other level of investment, the government will have to lobby to make sure credit is available and affordable at a competitive interest rate, which in this country is between 14% and 18%.
It was also brought to light that flood irrigation is going to be taxed, and farmers are not very fond of that because it affects their competitiveness. So it's also important they know that if it is taxed, it is zero-rated.
So we will be offering credit at lower interest rates, through, for example, the development finance corporation. Secondly, tax exemptions. Another incentive would be to provide technical support as far as irrigation is concerned.
BNamericas: How can the private sector be most beneficial to irrigation development?
Thompson: What we notice is that the design and uniform distribution of water can be increased, as well as efficiency, and that is where additional technical support will be well received.
In developing the policy, we're asking consultants to create investment plans and initiatives to create profitable projects.
BNamericas: In which productive areas is the irrigation policy most feasible, in your opinion?
Thompson: Corn in Belize is really expensive, as we also have a demand for corn regionally, so there's a really good opportunity for improved irrigation to intervene there.
The other area is sugarcane. This sector incorporates drainage more than irrigation. And that is what the farmers pointed out at a recent meeting - that irrigation should not be restricted only to irrigation but also [include] drainage. In the sugar plantations we have a big problem with drainage, and that also has to be encapsulated in the program's strategies.