Tsunami and agriculture: Q&A with Daniel Renault
Daniel Renault, senior officer in FAO's Land and Water Division, talks about the impact of the tsunami on agriculture.
What has been the main damage to agriculture in the tsunami-affected countries?
I would definitely say the loss of people. Many farmers were among the victims killed by the tsunami waves, also extension workers and experts working for agricultural institutions. Land, crops and agriculture machinery were also damaged but less than initially thought and recovery has already taken place. What is critical is the disruption of communities, the loss of know-how and expertise, which will be felt for many years to come.
In addition, the massive damage to infrastructure, such as roads, canals, irrigation and drainage systems, has been another drawback, particularly along the west coast of Sumatra. While farmers will soon be able to resume rice and vegetable production for local needs, the marketing of products on a regional and national level is still facing serious problems. Transportation costs are very high where roads and bridges have been damaged. That leads to higher prices for agricultural inputs, and also for the agricultural goods that need to be transported and marketed elsewhere.
Could you give an example?
The tsunami badly damaged one of the main palm oil terminals in western Indonesia, near the city of Meulaboh. This means that farmers cannot store and sell their palm oil: the palm oil market has already collapsed.
What about the situation in other countries?
Around 60 000 hectares of agricultural land were affected in all the countries concerned. We estimate that a quarter of this land has been definitely lost for agriculture. Each country and region has its own specific characteristics with respect to damage and resilience. In some cases land tenure problems have arisen. It may be necessary to relocate people who were living too close to the shore. New land tenure arrangements have to be found, and that will take time.
In Sri Lanka, as well as in the Maldives, we are very much concerned about the destruction of more than 20 000 traditional homestead gardens. These small plots of land close to people's homes, planted with fruit and medicinal trees, vegetables and spices, provided important additional nutritious food.
What is FAO's approach towards rehabilitating tsunami-affected areas?
Our concept is "Building back better": coastal areas need to be rebuilt in a sustainable way with a special emphasis on the protection of people and the environment. The needs of the different sectors, such as fisheries and forestry, need to be reflected through an integrated coastal area management.
The destruction of infrastructure and equipment offers a chance to modernize the agricultural sector in the affected areas and to offer better development opportunities. In the end, farmers will benefit from new transport and irrigation systems, for example, which would enable them to grow cash crops that could offer an opportunity for higher incomes.
How has FAO spent its tsunami funds?
From the onset of the crisis, FAO has been a key player in coordinating emergency activities. During the initial damage assessment phase we have developed a land classification framework that has been largely used. We have provided technical advice to governments and local institutions through dozens of experts recruited and sent to the affected countries as well as our own staff. FAO has also provided seeds and fertilizers and started to deliver several hundred hand tractors in Indonesia.
Salinization of agricultural lands was a big concern after the tsunami. FAO has worked to raise the local capacity in dealing with the issue by training more than one hundred local officers and providing them with special instruments to measure soil salinity. Today, six months after the disaster, FAO estimates that about 80 percent of the salt-affected land that can still be used for agriculture has been cleaned by rainfall or irrigation. Trash and debris still has to be cleaned up in certain regions.
The challenges of the next months will be to get people back into business, get farmers back to cultivation and rebuild livelihoods in a sustainable way with special emphasis on infrastructure. There is a need for improving coordination between the different players involved in the reconstruction process: FAO will play an active role there.
Do you have any idea when the reconstruction of agriculture will be finished?
It will take more than two years and the situation will differ from country to country. I hope that by the beginning of 2007 the agricultural situation should be back to normal in most of the affected areas.
23 June 2005
FAO News Coordinator
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