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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

How climate change, planting wrong type of rice plunged Ondo farmers into multimillion naira Anchor Borrowers’ debt

By Adetokunbo Abiola

That September morning at Ondo Road in Akure, a grey haired Olayinka Labiran, coordinator of rice farmers under the aegis of Federated Rice Farmers, looked weary. Sitting behind a desk in the dim-lit hall of the Ministry of Agriculture, his eyes narrowed in recollection of the past. His past comprised of three crises: a devastating flood worsened by climate change, the collapse of rice farming businesses, and the challenge in getting payments from the insurance company over the flood disaster.

A flood in September 2019 at a warm phase of an El-Nino year washed away no fewer than 600 hectares of rice farms at Ayede-Ogbese in Akure North Local Government Area of Ondo State, traumatizing about 373 farmers under the federal government’s Central Bank of Nigeria Anchor Borrowers’ Scheme, preventing the harvest of more than 4,000 metric tons of rice.

Now, Labiran bites his lips, as he recalled the El-Nino episode, aggravated by climate change, his face sober, fingers tapping on the desk in front of him, oblivious of the horns of vehicles on the nearby road.

Early in 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had warned that pests, floods, and diseases would be key contributing factors to crop failure during the rainy season, making it important for it to distribute improved seedlings for agricultural production, to forestall a situation where food scarcity from climate change factors leads to a hike in food prices. However, when the climate change factors came,the Ayede-Ogbese flood disaster proved a different ballgame for the affected farmers.

Also, the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) predicted the 2019 flood before it came to Ayede-Ogbese, based on a warm El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phase as indicated by the International ENSO Prediction Centre.

During the period under review, Sani Mashi, the then NIMET Director General, had said that the extreme weather conditions being experienced in the country would persist throughout that year, noting that the previous year had left off with extreme weather, which had claimed lives and destroyed livelihoods. The year 2019, as an El Nino year, had commenced with pockets of extreme weather events in form of severe storms, and Ayede-Ogbese was one of the casualties of the disaster.

Also, Clement Nze, Director General of the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (NIHSA), had warned that there was a high probability that a total of 74 Local Government Areas across the country would witness high flood risk during the rainy season, adding that coastal flooding would likely take place in Ondo, Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, and Lagos States due to the rise in sea level and tidal surge. The Ayede-Ogbese flood disaster was an outcome of the predictions.

Planting wrong rice specie

However,  farmers at Ayede-Ogbese were not aware of these predictions, which would have informed the type of rice to plant, in the first instance. Said Labiran, the rice farmers’ coordinator, “It was terrible. There was a lot of rain. We didn’t prepare for it. We weren’t aware of the NIMET prediction.”

Due to this, as Labiran confessed, the Ayede-Ogbese farmers planted Faro 44, a type of rice vulnerable to floods and unable to survive the rise in tidal surge. Consequently, when the flood came, it swept away the rice farms.

At nearby Uso community, the flood submerged 250 hectares of rice plantation. While fishermen floated on the flood, making quick catch of fish, for the farmers, it was anguish moment as a multi-billion-naira investment in rice cultivation lay submerged in the flood.

Yet, experts say that a rice, known as scuba rice, is flood resistant, as it can breathe underwater for up to two weeks and recover once the waters subside.

As of 2018, a team of Cornell and Japanese researchers had discovered a new genetic mechanism that allows certain rice plants to survive months-long floods. When the plant becomes submerged, a rare form of a gene triggers rapid growth to keep shoots above rising water.

According to a report by the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the2018 study, published in ‘Science,’ an online peer-reviewed magazine, identified a rare allele (a mutation) of the semi-dwarf 1 (SD1) gene that orchestrates adaptation to deep water. By identifying the allele, breeders may target it to develop new varieties adapted to long-term flood conditions.

The scuba rice specie behaves this way: “If the water only rises one foot, the plant only grows one foot; if the water rises 20 feet, it can grow to stay ahead of that water,” said Susan McCouch, Cornell professor of plant breeding and genetics and a senior author of the study, who worked alongside other researchers, including Motoyuki Ashikari, a rice geneticist at Nagoya University, Japan.

The Ayede-Ogbese farmers were probably unaware of this research effort, and were not prepared for the flood.

Rice importation in Nigeria

Due to the flood, the rice farmers said, they could not pay back most of the loans from the Anchor Borrowers’ Scheme, which, by 2022,  suffers shortfalls in payments of N378 billion of the N756.5 billion naira  disbursed as loans to 3.7 million farmers across the country. The federal government gave out the loans to curb rice importation, slated to increase by 12 percent by 2023, but through  incidents such as the 2019 flood at Ayede-Ogbese, the federal government’s hope to curb rice importation might be dashed, said Alwan Hassan, the acting managing director of Bank of Agriculture, which served as the farmers’ banker.

Farmers and climate change

Experts, however, note that the changing climate is adversely affecting the productivity and livelihoods of Nigerian smallholder rural farmers. Robert Ugochukwu Onyeneke, the lead author of a research at AIMS Press, an open access journal in the major scientific and medical fields, stated how Nigerian farmers should be aware and adapt to climate change.

“It is clear from the review that building resilience against climate change can be pursued systematically by analyzing strategies that show potentials to increasing buffer capacity of farmers and farming systems, enhancing their capacities for self-organization, and improving their abilities to learn and adapt iteratively,” he wrote.

It turned out that many of the Ayede-Ogbese farmers did not have the buffer capacity through the farming system, and their farms remain ruined over the flood disaster three years later. They cannot continue with farming because they do not have the wherewithal to sustain the business, says Labiran.

At Ayede-Ogbese, this reporter met people like Joyce Ogunlana, a mother-of-six whose farm was washed away; as well as Jimoh Adelanwa, who daily worries about how to repay the CBN loan; and John Ariaba, who is angry at how the flood from the Ogbese River submerged his rice farm. They had hoped to harvest more than 4,000 metric tons of rice in 2019, to be given to the Anchor scheme for loan repayments and keeping the remainder to themselves, but this did not happen.

Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2019, Nigeria’s rice importation stood at 2.6 million metric tons, with an average import bill of N467.86 billion at the international price of $435 per ton, but through such incidents at Ayede-Ogbese, economists say, the rice importation bill is projected to rise by 93 percent or N433.97 billion by 2029.

Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation

After the flood incident, the Ayede-Ogbese farmers and others affected went to the Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation (NAIC), which had served as insurers to cover potential losses from the Anchor loan. However, the NAIC insurance cover ran from August 2018 to December 2018, and even though the loan money from CBN got to the farmers in 2019, the insurance company could not pay the affected farmers because the flood took place eight months after the insurance policy had elapsed, Labiran said.

“We’ve not got anything from the insurance company. We’ve not been able to pay back the loans from the Anchor Borrowers’ Scheme. We appeal to NAIC to toe the line of equity and do the right thing and pay us,” Labiran pleaded.

At the office of the Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation in the Federal Secretariat, Akure, officials refused to speak with this reporter. But a source at the corporation’s headquarters in Abuja said through a phone interview that insurance policies related to agricultural production had timelines.

“The one taken by the rice farmers in Ondo State had elapsed,” said the source, who pleaded to speak anonymously.

“If the farmers had extended the policy to the period when the flood disaster took place, NAIC would have been able to cover their losses, but as it was now, farmers should write an official letter to NAIC and plead for help on compassionate grounds, then they could be helped,” the official said.

Also speaking, Victor Adebisi, an insurance expert in Akure, advised farmers to insure their crops through product and agricultural insurance, noting that these are the insurance policies available to farmers. He added that through these insurance policies, in the case of a disaster such as flood or pest invasion of farmlands, farmers won’t suffer total loss.

Adebisi also noted that the farmers at Ayede-Ogbese should have extended the period of their insurance to cover the following year, and that it would have covered their losses.

“As the case is now, they can’t get anything, since the terms of their insurance has expired,” he concluded.

Speaking about climate events such as flooding, experts say that temperature in Nigeria rose from 2019 at 27.29C to 27.43C in 2020 and 27.67C in 2021. A warm air speeds up evaporation, giving rise to the possibility of heavy rainfall. At the transition of the El-Nino weather circle over south-west Nigeria in late 2019, rain poured down in torrents, with properties worth millions of naira destroyed at Akungba-Akoko, Ose, and other areas in Ondo State. At the same time, Olorunsogo and Ayesan in Ogun State suffered from severe cases of flooding, while residents of Ikere, Emure and Ise Local Government Areas of Ekiti State counted losses in properties running into millions of naira.

“Then, after the floods, we had the coming of the Fulani herdsmen,” said Boluwade Ogunbodede, the chairman of the Federated FADAMA Farmers Community Association.

Fulani herdsmen and desertification

Writing in the journal ResearchGate, researcher Temidayo Ebenezer Olagunju said that climate change-induced desertification in the northern parts of the country led to the movement of herdsmen whose clashes with the farmers had left blood and loss of agricultural products in their trail.

“The desertification threatens about 580,841 kilometres or 63.83 percent of Nigeria’s total land area, with about 35 percent of the country turning into a desert,” Olagunju said.

Other accounts put Nigeria’s annual desertification rate at about 3.5 percent, meaning an average yearly loss of between 350,000 and 400,000 hectares of land. Lots of Fulani herdsmen, in their bid to escape desertification and ensuing drought, brought some of Nigeria’s estimated 19 million cattle to Ondo State as from June 2019, according to the International Crisis Group. Later on in the year, the cattle destroyed the rest of the rice harvest saved from the disastrous flood, making the farmers’ situation hopeless, as well as hampering in the long run Nigeria’s efforts at cutting down the cost of rice importation.

Rice importation in Nigeria

Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture has projected that Nigeria’s rice production will reach five million metric tons in 2022, slightly above the previous year, compared to the national rice need of 6.7 million metric tons annually, resulting in a deficit of about two million metric tons which is either imported or smuggled illegally into the country, according to the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Muhammad Enag during an interactive meeting organised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – Global Environment Facility (GEF), in collaboration with Women Farmers Advancement Network (WOFAN), among others last December.

With harsh climate change events such as the Ogbese disaster, this projection could prove optimistic, meaning even more rice importation.

The Ayede-Ogbese flood incident forced many rice farmers to give up the work, plunging them into unemployment or underemployment. Some survivors of the flooding incident have continued with the business, but they are severely weakened financially.

Where it will all end is anyone’s guess.

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