The challenges imposed by the drought in the Coquimbo region

Advance in the efficiency of the distribution and use of water, evaluate in a more realistic way the fruit projects and produce more in less surface are learning that allow facing the pending tasks, such as developing a regional productive strategy in the medium and long term, changing varieties and species and attract financing.

Gabriel Varela has been the general manager of the El Arenal farm for five years, around Vicuña, in the Elqui Valley, as managing partner of the Agro Desarrollo investment fund (managed by Sembrador Capital de Riesgo). Together they have developed a project of 120 hectares of fruit trees - divided between table grapes, citrus fruits and pomegranates - of which a good part was planted between 2012 and 2013, right in the middle of the worst drought that has affected the Coquimbo Region , that just last year gave truce after the winter rains.

The decision to opt for fruit growing in that area was not coincidence or a bold bet, but included a detailed study of the soils of the field, analysis of trends in international markets, the incorporation of humidity sensors, telemetry and new varieties in the different species. In fact, in the case of pomegranates, the delay in having a sufficient volume of plants delayed them by one year.

“There has been a difference in the way of facing things. Normally, people start to buy a field, but here the first thing was to see what could be developed and under what conditions, and from there the rest was done”, explains Gabriel Varela.

El Arenal is a model of agriculture that comes to Coquimbo after the drought, since it fixes water management as the central axis, incorporates a financing formula that is not traditional for the sector, with investors, and exploits the potential of the region to produce early quality fruit, with the replacement of species and varieties, elements that summarize the main challenges faced by farmers.

Although last winter's winter rains alleviated the concern about the scarce availability of water, they are not expected to represent a change in trend for the coming years, so the distribution of water for irrigation has remained at the same levels or similar to those that were in the previous season, with the aim of securing the resource for this year and next.

“Some farmers complain because we are not delivering more water, even when they see that there is more in the reservoir, but one of the things we learned was to be responsible, since before we lacked vision and water was wasted… Efficiency has been a lesson that the drought taught us,” says Cristian Pinto, director of the first section of the Elqui River Surveillance Board and president of the Valley Small Farmers Association.

Its projection makes sense with the climatic expectations that come for the region, since it is expected that this year and next will be drier than 2015, due to the probable arrival of the La Niña phenomenon, which normally happens to El Niño and is associated at low levels of rain.

“The coming scenario is that it continues the trend of recent years, associated with the desertification process that we are facing. When you are coming out of a strong El Niño event, one would expect a dry autumn and up to now we estimate that the temperatures will be very high at least until April”, projects the meteorologist from the Center for Advanced Studies of Arid Zones (Ceaza), Cristóbal Julia.

It also considers that a good parameter to say that a year was rainy is that the Paloma reservoir is filled, which did not happen in 2015 and that is currently one third of its capacity, which is 750 million cubic meters. Something that serves as a warning that the lower availability of water is a trend that imposes new tasks.

Less surface, more production

The shortage of water has been transversal in the last seven years, but the province of Limarí has ​​been the most affected, since it concentrates half of the area under irrigation and, by far, the largest area devoted to the production of fruit from the region. According to the cadastre of the Ciren, of the Ministry of Agriculture, between 2011 and 2015 had a loss of 2.472 hectares of fruit trees, a fall of 13%, remaining in 19.255,7 hectares in production.

For its part, the estimates of the Agricultural Society of the North (SAN) account for a decrease of 73% in the area under irrigation in that province, which today would have 19.549 hectares with water available for crops, while in Elqui provide that they stopped irrigating 10.870 hectares, a decrease of 40%.

The data reveal a difficult crossroads for producers: choose between reducing the size of their gardens or disappearing. The fruit grower Ulises Contador chose the first in the farm Las Mercedes, near Ovalle, and his 110 hectares of fruit trees, divided between avocados, lemons, orange trees and flowers, today he only keeps 37 hectares.

The decision to stump his orange and avocado trees was the result of an analysis of how much each crop produced per cubic meter of water and its profitability in dollars. He says it was hard, but "making the loss" on time saved him from losing everything.

“Today I am making a two-way change: from avocado to avocado, looking for new, more productive and stable varieties, plus the recovery of an old part and, eventually, switching to another crop, such as lemons, while the existing production dies. and so I castling. It is not something that allows me to grow, but only to recover something ”, he details, in a strategy that seeks to improve quality and productivity, since he cannot do it on the surface.

“I think that's for everyone. They have to concentrate and do their best to have good results... Last year we showed that with 40% of the area we earned 80% of what we obtained with the total in production", highlights Ulises Contador, and affirms that with that He had trouble paying his debts.

Attract resources

Vegetable producer Claudio Valencia, who has 15 hectares of lettuce, celery, green beans and other vegetables with his father-in-law in the Pan de Azúcar area, in the last section of the Elqui River, remembers that a couple of years ago he felt helpless when he won a bond from the National Irrigation Commission (CNR) to cover a dam with geomembranes, for about $50 million, which he could not use because the bank took six months to tell him that they would not finance the part that he had to contribute. “They told us that the agricultural sector was very risky and that they were not going to finance it, and since the bond was very close to maturity, we couldn't go to another bank, and we lost it,” he recounts.

He says that his case has been repeated among other hortaliceros -only in the same channel of which he estimates that there are some hundred plots dedicated to this item, which send almost all the production to Lo Valledor-, since it is a more informal business than the fruit growing, where a part of the sales is not invoiced and in many cases land is leased, so it costs to support the financial statements.

Along with the rain, financing has been one of the most elusive elements for agriculture in the IV Region in recent years in the different areas, which has delayed the replacement of varieties and modernizations that producers want to specify.

Faced with this difficulty, Ulises Contador believes that one of the challenges farmers face is assuming that the region today represents a greater risk for banks than ten years ago, which they must incorporate into project evaluations, something he sees as learning about the lack of water. "I believe that nobody in their equation projected having eight years of drought, that is only known now, but from now on it must be incorporated as a factor... There are people who this year have been very optimistic and are betting a lot without knowing exactly how much they have water,” he warns.

A similar diagnosis has the director of the SAN José Corral, who believes that the region continues to have an attractive position in terms of international market opportunities and that producers who were not able to take lessons to improve their management should leave the field .

“The diagnosis is there and the solutions too, but we lack the resources. If there are no real resources to reconvert the region, we will continue like this… To develop we need to have different instruments than those that exist, which should be public-private, due to the impact that the activity has in the region”, he states.

An alternative to traditional financing is for producers to open up to seek partners or foreign capital, such as the investment fund in which Gabriel Varela participates. However, the level of demand that is required in formal terms makes it, until now, viable only for some farmers.

"There is a lot of interest from foreign investors, but almost no producer is prepared to receive these resources, because they have to become a company that meets international standards and have no debts... The world is eager to invest in Chile and whoever gets it may have great business in the future. I think the great challenge we have is to go out and look for these resources," says José Corral, who is also a fruit grower and area manager of Subsole, a company that together with LarrainVial formed the first investment fund manager focused on agricultural innovation, Sembrador Capital .

Water efficiency

During the last drought, both producers and unions acknowledge that, practically, there was no farmer who has not made improvements in their farms. However, there is still a lack of progress, especially in the modernization of irrigation systems and in the coating of intrapredial channels and reservoirs, to ensure that everyone receives the volume of water that corresponds to them.

One of the main problems demanded by the vigilance boards is that, in terms of irrigation, they have to compete in public tenders with all regions of the country, something that, they say, should be changed by a distribution of resources at the local level .

Another point that they consider necessary to review is how to advance in the improvements of the canals, since if only one work is done in one part, the water losses are maintained. “The ideal would be to fix the canals one by one, but complete, because if there are no irrigators left, water will not reach them. There is a lack of these types of policies”, comments Cristian Pinto.

In concrete terms, it says that in Elqui they have 630 kilometers of channels and, when calculating how much they could improve if all available resources are allocated, only six kilometers per year can be piped.

Along with these pending changes, Pablo Álvarez, professor of water resources management at the University of La Serena, while acknowledging that producers today are much better prepared to face a drought, believes that it is necessary to incorporate the concept of "rational agriculture ”, having water as the center of decision-making.

For that they developed the WEAP system, which incorporates different environmental data, such as humidity, temperature, rainfall and others, to predict the amount of water that each producer will have available during the irrigation season in the Limarí basin, which they are replicating for Elqui .

"With this, farmers can know several months before the season occurs, what will happen during the entire irrigation season," he details.

Develop a strategy

Although the rains of the last winter gave a break, the desertification process projected by meteorologists and the two years with low rainfall that are expected make the water shortage not momentary, but a new reality.

So far, the State's resources and the efforts of the private sector have been to improve efficiency, but the producers claim that a long-term strategy to address the new scenario and a model of agricultural development for the region has not yet been planned. They see it as one of the main challenges.

“The great lesson was that we cannot live forever with the conditions we suffer or with very high illusions. There has to be a neat middle ground, agreed upon by all, that gives us the possibility of continuing to be farmers”, proposes the president of the SAN, María Inés Figari.

The starting point for that would be to unify the statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture and the SAN to establish a common scenario on which to work, both in terms of productive hectares damaged by drought and in real availability of water resources.

“On this reality there are thousands of diagnoses and we have to reach a common one, because we need to look at the sector as the productive engine of the region. That strategic vision has been very scarce”, states José Corral.

As a point in favor, the producers highlight that the drought managed to generate greater participation in the activities of agricultural associations, such as the vigilance boards, which makes them feel stronger in the face of the new stage. “I ask that we remain united, because it is the only way to continue moving forward. The drought showed that we had to come together to raise what we needed and we have to continue doing so to stay competitive”, emphasizes María Inés Figari.

72.772 productive hectares of the region do not yet have technified irrigation systems, estimates the SAN.

2.085 hectares decreased the area with fruit trees in the region between 2011 and 2015, according to Ciren.

37 approximately one thousand hectares are used for the production of vegetables and annual crops.

Source: Field Magazine

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