Plant imported for local cattle now a $700M headache for agri sector
In 1984, officials in the agriculture sector came up with what seemed like a simple but brilliant plan for providing cattle farmers with cheap but nutritious fodder for their livestock.
The fodder was antelope grass, a hardy plant that originated in South Africa. It could withstand drought, and was considered an excellent alternative to grain. Soon, fields of antelope grass were being cultivated in cattle rearing areas around the country. Officials in charge of the National Dairy Development Plan (NDDP) promoted the grass in its drive.
But what the agricultural experts didn’t cater for was the fact that antelope grass thrived near water, and actually grows in it.
Within a few years, like an out-of-control project in a sci-fi movie, it was not only growing along many of the country’s main waterways, such as the Abary, Mahaica, Mahaicony and Pomeroon, but also clogging them up.
According to one report, “Its stand in some rivers is so high that the canopy from both sides has closed over, preventing the normal water flow of the river and necessitating the spraying of glyphosate (a herbicide) to arrest its further growth.”
“The problem affects very seriously the irrigation network of rice areas in the country. The Mahaicony and Pomeroon Rivers, and all drainage and irrigation canals are always overrun with antelope grass.”
Recently, coconut farmers from along the Lower Pomeroon complained to visiting Government officials that the rapidly-growing antelope grass was blocking drains and canals and making it difficult for them to reap their crops.
Today, the grass that was once seen as a boon to cattle farmers is now the major weed problem in Guyana.
In fact, a recent GINA report quoted Agriculture Minister Robert Persaud as saying that it has cost Government more than $700M to clear antelope grass from the country’s drains and canals.
Making matters worse is the fact that antelope grass appears to be resistant to most herbicides. And officials are wary about the use of toxic chemicals near waterways, since residents often use these for cooking and drinking.
In an attempt to solve the country’s antelope grass headache, the Ministry of Agriculture has invited Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) Weed and Plant Protection Officer Ricardo Labrada Romero to Guyana to tackle the problem.
A GINA release stated that Mr. Romero (who arrived in Guyana around January 9,) expressed his eagerness to start the project as well as explore new initiatives, such as the implementation of biological or non-chemical control methods to prevent environmental harm.
The release added that he also intends to propose some measures that can contribute to better productivity of Guyana’s irrigation channels, as well as other aspects of drainage and irrigation.
During his tenure in Guyana, he will be working along with the Pesticide Control Board, the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA), and the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo).
At a workshop held last Friday at the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), participants were informed of a number of proposals to control the spread of the antelope grass and other aquatic weeds.
One method is the use of weevils and other insects which prey on water weeds, such as the water hyacinth, water lettuce and water fern.
According to a NARI report released at the workshop, four tanks have been set up for the rearing of these insects.
Den Amstel, Meten-Meer-Zorg on the West Coast of Demerara, and Trafalgar in Region Five have been identified as areas where the weevils will be released.
There will also be herbicide trials on antelope grass. However, it was noted that there is no biological control available for antelope grass. “This compels the need to develop an integrated management approach, where more than one control method should be applied.”
According to the report, this “may imply the correct and rational use of some low-toxic herbicides.
“This aspect is important to be considered since water for cooking and drinking by the local population is taken directly from available water bodies,” the NARI report stated.
By Michael Jordan