Rice, Rice Baby
November 23, 2009
Lake Arenal is an artificial lake built by the government of Costa Rica. It houses a hydroelectric dam which supplies 40% of the country’s electricity. The lake was finished in 1982. With its completion the government launched an irrigation project in Bagazti. The project’s goal was to expand agriculture in a region otherwise far too dry, especially for rice. A series of secondary canals were built to carry water from the lake towards the Pacific and into rice fields.
Twenty families were chosen for the project based on socioeconomic standing and interviews. These 20 families were given a house and 1000 ha to farm rice. The soils in Bagatzi are well equipped for rice as they are packed with at least 5 meters of sediment from the flooding of the Tenpisque River. Costa Rica has a high demand for rice, being a staple in pretty much every Costa Rican meal. Once el Instituto Desarollo Agrado, a division of the government, gave a farmer a plot of land he thereby acquired the right of access to an irrigation canal and a drainage canal. With a steady and reliable supply of water, these farmers can bring in 2 rice crops a year.
The group of farmers formed a coop to get better prices for seeds, chemicals and technical assistance with the irrigation system. The coop also shares a tractor for harvesting and another machine used for a process called fangueo, wherein big iron wheels kill weed seedlings and impregnate the soil with organic material. The coop created a buffer zone around the rice fields which they planted with corn and beans for community consumption. The buffer zone was meant to limit some of the pollution cause by the rice fields, mainly from herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides and to prevent fires. In 1988 a school was built by the community. Today, the coop is working to build a rice processing plant so they have more control over the price of their product.
The meticulous process of growing rice:
Each farmers’ 1000 ha plot is divided into 4 quadrants which are always at different stages of development. Plot one, day one begins as it is filled with water. This means opening the small metal dam in the canal and letting the water flow in. The plot is then fangueoed (not sure I can do that to a Spanish word). Anyway, this mixes the soil and organic material and kills all the weeds. Water is then emptied from the field into the output canal.
Fresh water from the canal fills the field once again, but not so much as to suffocate the rice seeds which have already been planted. The seeds sit under water for 24 hours. They need a very hot and humid environment to germinate so the field is generally covered in a large sheet of plastic, which I envisioned to be something like Saran Wrap, but is probably much more durable and reusable than that.
After 10 days the first round of fertilizer is applied. Around this time comes the first problem of growing rice, the open water. Birds see a big expanse of water and find it a great place to land and feed. They will eat up every little rice plant if given the chance. Farmers are forced to come out and patrol their fields all night long. Controlling the ducks consists of shining a really bright light on them, firing canons or shooting them (which is illegal). However, with 100 ducks at a time, what is a farmer to do who relies on the rice crop to feed his family?
After 15 days a heavy load of fertilizer, namely phosphorous, is applied to aid in root development. 100kg of fertilizer is needed for every hectare. That is 20 sacks of fertilizer at 20,000 colones a pop.
For the next 25 days water is constantly circulated through the field, in and out, in and out. This is a practice that takes practice and is the determining factor of yield at the end of the season.
After 30 days more fertilizer is added as well as pesticide, herbicide and fungicide. After 44 days there is more fertilizer and again after 70 days, just preceding fruit production. With all the talk of the great soil from the Tenpisque and the incorporation of organic material, all this fertilizer is confusing. After that, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides are added as needed.
When the fields are yellow the rice is ready to be harvested. The community tractor comes by and the rice goes off to the processing plant for a price decided by weight and by quality (a red variety of rice grows even better than the white rice, but this is considered a contaminate in the crop).
With the crop off, farmers prepare for the next near: Each farmer needs 3 sacks of certified seed (32,000 colones/sack), fertilizer at 24,000 colones/sack, herbicide at 20,000 colones/liter, and a fee of 180,000 colones to use the water. To pay a guard for the night is 10,000 colones. All in all 1 crop (100 ha) costs 7 million colones a year. You can see how a bad season could really put you down.
There has certainly been speculation about what these output canals are carrying and where they are going. Some classmates of mine are working on an independent project measuring the water quality using aquatic insects. I’ll make sure to post the results. OTS has done some work with the rice farmers to reduce the amounts of agrochemicals. They worked to incorporate a fungus as a biological control. The project went on for 4 years and was very successful. The farmers were happy with lower costs and higher yields. However, funding went dry and now the farmers are back to their old intensive ways without a way to produce the biological control.
All and all I think this is a very interesting example of government-regulated agricultural development. As always, it could stand to be more sustainable, but the community is happy to have a secure income and a nice place to live near Palo Verde National Park. Just something to think about the next time you go to a chinese restaurant or cook up some gallo pinto.