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Dr. Gero Vaagt

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Agriculture

Improve Your Lot

FAO, Representative for the Dominican Republic

Bio

Dr. Gero Vaagt has a degree in Agriculture from the Christian Albrecht University of Kiel and a PhD in Plant Pathology, Plant Protection, and Pesticide Management from the Institute of Pathology in Kiel. Between 1981 and 1998 he worked with the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) in Costa Rice, Malaysia, and Germany. He has been with the FAO since 1998 and, since, 2012, has been Representative for the Dominican Republic.

"I think that we could really create a new industry and consciousness about the better use of food."

What are the challenges for the development of the agricultural sector in the country?

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN has a long history of supporting and strengthening agriculture, but in recent years FAO has focused very much on hunger and hunger education. It is a simple term, but it is quite a difficult job. We know that, worldwide, we currently have about 870 million hungry people, and these figures have been quite stable over the last three-to-four years. Some countries have made progress in the reduction of their hungry population, including the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic has already reached the Millennium Development goal of halving the number of people experiencing hunger. In 1991 and 1992, more than 30% of Dominicans were under-nourished. For 2013, our figures indicate that it is 15.6%. The Dominican Republic has already obtained its goal, and these are things that FAO would like to promote. At the same time, we have to recognize that the situation has not improved in a number of countries, despite good agricultural conditions and possibilities. Currently, in the Dominican Republic, we have found a good environment because the government wants to reduce poverty, and poverty is the other side of the coin in terms of food insecurity. Therefore, if poverty reduction is part of the country’s development initiatives, it supports and strengthens food security in the country. It is not only that there is food available, but also that there is access and the capacity to manage and be able to buy and use the food. That is the general worldwide situation. In the Dominican Republic, we have noticed about 7% of GDP is coming from agriculture, and about 14% of the country’s employment is provided through the agricultural sector. Therefore, it is quite a strong and important sector; however, in certain areas, production and productivity is lower than in neighboring countries with similar conditions. I think that, from the point of view of food security, the biggest crops are rice and plantains. In terms of area planted, rice is the major crop in the country. The rice production level could be better and in general the productivity is low, because the use of technology is limited and knowledge is lacking. We see this as one of the major challenges in agricultural production. If you are looking at the whole value-added chain, from production to final product, there are not many activities in the Dominican Republic. There are only a few companies producing food items here, for example. Very often, the Dominican Republic exports its primary products. I think that there are a lot of opportunities to correct this and, at the same time, provide more employment and make better use of natural resources from the country itself.

What are you doing for small-scale farmers in order to improve their conditions?

Around 70% of the Dominican Republic’s producers are small holders and they are also the majority of the so-called staple food producers, i.e. plantains and rice. However, there is not a very good information basis about the agricultural situation in the country. The last agricultural census was done in 1981, so we have initiated, with the National Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Agriculture, the process of launching an agricultural census, and we hope that this will provide a better information basis on agriculture and also address issues. When we talk about small holders, very often farmers do not have land titles and, if you do not have a title, you are not subject to good credit conditions. It is very expensive to get a land title because it has to be measured. This is also a priority for the Ministry of Agriculture. In the agricultural census, this question will be addressed and we hope that we can have a better picture about the agricultural situation and the distribution of land, productivity, and generally better figures. I also see the agricultural census as providing a sustainable basis for agricultural investment; it is the basis for having better information, but also better planning and better-targeted measures for the agricultural sector. This is part of improving the framework conditions for agriculture and, therefore, we are also in discussions with local politicians and NGOs as well. Also, we are assisting the National Water Resource Institute in developing a new law for water management, covering issues of water distribution and the like. Similarly, we are working with the Ministry of the Environment, which is responsible for the forestry sector, in order to improve its legal measures so that the forests can be better utilized in the country. We do not normally try to address individual farmers; we try to address their associations or cooperatives. We try to strengthen farmers to share and work together with other farmers when they buy and sell things, and when they are confronted with agricultural problems, such as sanitary issues. The issue of cooperatives was pushed in the 1980s and early 1990s, but there were apparently some bad experiences with the misuse of funds. Now, this idea is coming back, so we are trying to strengthen cooperative agricultural associations so that farmers have better selling, buying, and negotiating conditions and also so that they can find better solutions for addressing their problems and have more cost-effective, efficient, and productive agricultural practices.

“I think that we could really create a new industry and consciousness about the better use of food.”

Where are the major needs in order to provide new technology and better equipment in the meat, fish, and crop sub-sectors?

We are on an island and the national consumption of fish is low, but it has to do with history, tradition, and also with storage problems. You have to eat fish fresh or you have to know how to treat it, and the transportation of fish was not easy in the olden days. These factors combined have led to the lower consumption of fish. I think that the major food item now is chicken, which has taken over from pork. Here, there is a National Commission called CODOPESCA and we are working with its members in a number of areas. Recently, we have been doing a study on Lago Enriquillo. The size of the lake is advancing and certain roads are already flooded; farmers have lost their land. We have observed that there are a lot of crabs now in Lago Enriquillo and we are trying to train some farmers in fishing practices in order to compensate for their loss of land. There are some other initiatives using the crab meat to sell and be bottled, so these are some of the initiatives to improve the use of seafood and fish in the country.

What is next for the Dominican Republic?

Still, I would say 1.6 million-1.7 million Dominicans do not get adequate food daily, which is a shame for a country where there is a per capita GDP rate of $5,600-$5,800. Poverty has remained around 50% in rural areas and about 40% in urban areas and that has not changed over the last several years. Therefore, we try very much to strengthen the efforts of the government to reduce poverty wherever we can, but we also strengthen social initiatives in order for poor or vulnerable populations to have better access to food. There should be a continuation to reduce the current 15% to an acceptable figure; eradication of hunger is our vision. When we say there is no hunger, we mean less than 5% undernourished people in a given country. The aim is to work in order to have a situation where every Dominican has sufficient food. This is also in the new food security law, which includes the right to adequate food. When the law is passed, it will provide a legal instrument for Dominicans to claim for food. We also recently received a request from the Vice-President, Dr. Margarita Cedeño, to strengthen the approach to food banks. There are some small initiatives in the country already and FAO is managing major initiatives in Argentina and Colombia. We will try to address this issue here in order to strengthen the social aspects for the provision of food in schools, to the elderly, and to poor people who are covered by the Vice-President’s program, Progresando con Solidaridad. Under it, 600,000-800,000 people are getting special cards that provide them with certain benefits. It could be a good starting point for this food bank. There is a huge private sector in the country, and I am certain that within supermarkets there are some problems when the expiry dates on food items gets closer. Maybe there could be an arrangement with some supermarkets that might be very interested in their food items still being used as intended so they do not have to destroy the food. Worldwide, more than 30% of the food produced at farm level is not reaching our mouths. But here, it is not only in the supermarkets, it goes down the drain to the small shops, the colmados. I think that we could really create a new industry and consciousness about the better use of food. I think it would create a kind of win-win situation with the private sector to establish a food bank, and that it would strengthen access to food for poor people.

© The Business Year – October 2013

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