BY: Felix Chaudhary, The Fiji Times
THERE is nothing Rama can do but watch as saltwater slowly creeps up his six and a half-acre sugarcane farm in Varavu, coastal Ba.
The 68-year-old said the last time he harvested cane of any real value was three years ago.
Every time the tide pulls in, Rama says, another few precious millimetres of what was once fertile cane land is lost.
The situation has gotten so bad that he has abandoned cane farming for subsistence vegetable cropping and he drives a carrier to bring in much needed income
Not a single
stick of cane
Mention the words “climate change” and he just shakes his head.
“I don’t care what they call it, but I have been forced to do other things just to keep my family going,” he said.
“Five years ago, I used to harvest more than 150 tonnes, but for the past three years I haven’t planted a single stick of cane because there’s no use.
“It costs a lot of money to prepare the soil, about $2000 an acre, and all that money will be lost if I plant because the sea will just come and claim it.”
So far, the sea has taken three and a half acres.
And when the land began to turn because of increasing saltiness, he began cultivating vegetables on a small patch of elevated land.
Together with his son, Parveen Kumar, the family survives on vegetables grown there plus the earnings from their carrier business.
“I have another two acres of land that is idle at the moment, but I need money to develop it.
“I’m not sure if I want to plant cane there because even though it’s on an elevated part of my farm, the way the sea is rising, in another four to five years’ time most of my land will be affected.”
Rama said there were two possible solutions, but both required a significant amount of capital — something neither he nor his son had.
“We could improve the drainage and try to find a way to keep the saltwater from coming any further or we could set up a prawn or fish farm.
“But the big question is where will we get the money to do the proper studies that are needed, hire machinery and, in terms of the fish or prawn farm, purchase raw material and pumps.
“We do not have the type of money to do all that.
“The problem we are facing is also the same for every sugarcane farm located along the coast.
“The sea level is going up, we have seen it happen and we are the ones being affected by it and there is nothing we can do about it.”
Coastal areas in Fiji are becoming increasingly susceptible to saltwater inundation, either through rising seawater levels or from storm surges.
More than 800 Fijian communities have been affected, three villages have been relocated, and 45 villages will need to be relocated in the next decade.
For six months in a year the Kumar family at Uluisila Sigatoka are literally forced off their nine-acre farm by floodwaters.
As a result brothers Sarjeet and Sanjeep Kumar were forced to find work at nearby resorts and the duo contribute all their earnings to help keep the family alive.
Their father Hemant Kumar once produced in excess of 200 tonnes of cane from six out of the nine acres but as the water from a river that runs beside their farm began breaking its banks about four years ago, the family knew their days as full-time farmers were over.
“At first we thought the river was flooding our land as a one-off thing and it would go back to normal,” Sarjeet said.
“But then we noticed that the river level did not fall as much as it used to and every time there was heavy rain, it flooded very easily.
“Also, when there’s heavy rain, big trees and logs float downstream and clog up the river.
“When it gets flooded, the water just takes whatever we have planted and we lose it all.
“We used to have sugar cane back then, but when the flooding began (around 2012) we lost a lot of our crop because the water would remain on the farm for weeks.
“At first it affected newly-planted cane because the floods would wash away all the fertiliser.
“And this cost us about $2000 each time because we used about 40 bags of fertiliser.
“And that is not even factoring in the labour cost.
“After a while, even the cane that managed to withstand the floods and grow did not grow very well.”
Vegetables over cane
The Kumar family abandoned cane in favour of vegetable farming.
Sarjeet said because cane was a two-year crop, it was susceptible to the floods.
“Vegetables and root crops made more sense because you can plant and harvest within three to six months.
“Because it (flooding) has happened so many times, we now know not to plant from November to April.
“We plant from May to June and just before the rainy season starts in October, we stop planting and the family relies on the income that Sarjeet and I earn from our work at the resort.”
The Kumar family said they received warnings from sugar industry stakeholders about their decision not to plant cane.
“They told us that if we don’t plant cane, our lease will not be renewed. But what can we do, our land can’t be used for about five to six months every year.
“We have told them, they have visited our farm. Now we just have to wait and see what happens.”
The effects of climate change are a reality for the Kumars.
Their whole life and source of livelihood has changed as a direct result of sedimentation and riverbank erosion caused by increased rainfall in the upper reaches of the Sigatoka River and its tributaries.