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7726: The DR: The Breadbasket of the Caribbean (fwd)

From: Max Blanchet <maxblanchet@worldnet.att.net>

DR wants to reap harvest
By Canute James
Published: March 8 2001 23:06GMT | Last Updated: March 8 2001 23:41GMT

As an agronomist and former agriculture minister, Hipólito Mejía is clear
about the sector of his country's economy on which he wants to concentrate.

Since taking over the government six months ago, Mr Mejía, president of the
Dominican Republic, has turned his attention to agriculture. The
administration plans to make the country of 18,700 square miles the bread
basket of the Caribbean.

"The government wants to convert the country into what it should have been
long time ago - a supplier of food products for neighbouring countries,"
said Eligio Jaquez, the agriculture minister.

"Using modern agricultural technology, we have the capacity to produce food
for 40m people." The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of
Hispaniola with Haiti, has a population of 8m people.

Dominican agriculture traditionally has been dominated by sugar. It is the
second-biggest producer in the Caribbean, after Cuba. Agriculture accounts
for 12 per cent of gross domestic product, with the main exports - sugar,
coffee, cocoa and tobacco - accounting for just under a half of the
country's export earnings.

However, Mr Mejía, a social democrat, took office accusing the previous
centrist administration of Leonel Fernandez of ignoring agriculture. He
promised to increase agricultural and livestock production to supply all
domestic markets and the country's rapidly expanding tourism industry.

Mr Mejía has announced investments in agriculture valued at just over $700m.
He has also provided $120m to "reactivate the nation's livestock industry".

His most ambitious venture so far, however, is a $400m project to expand the
production of fruit. The government is providing $100m, while the rest will
be raised internationally, he said.

The project was planned by the government and the Interamerican Institute
for Co-operation in Agriculture, and will involve 100,000 producers. It
plans the planting of 40m plants of 20 varieties, including avocado, mango,
tangerine, grapefruit, limes, cashew, and papaya.

Even before production begins from this project, Dominican agriculture has
found new export markets. McDonalds, the US fast-food company, will purchase
from Dominican farmers all the onions, lettuce and tomatoes used in its 122
restaurants in neighbouring Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's Pueblo supermarket
chain will buy its fresh produce in the Dominican Republic.

The prospects for rapid and significant expansion in agriculture are very
good, said Osmar Benitez, executive vice president of the Dominican
Agribusiness Council. This is particularly so for traditional crops such as
coffee, bananas, cocoa and tobacco, and for development of livestock.

"For example, Dominican coffee fetches about 60 per cent more than other
coffees, but there are about 60,000 small growers involved and productivity
is one-fifth of that in other countries. The country earns about $80m per
year from coffee exports, but our studies have indicated a market worth
$300m per year."

He points to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation listing the
Dominican Republic as the biggest producer of organic bananas. The country
is taking advantage of changing demand in the market, and exports about
30,000 tonnes a year of organic bananas mainly to the US and the European

"This country was once an exporter of beef, now we are importing," says Mr
Benitez. "There is a big domestic market for livestock products, as the
country has the biggest tourism sector in the Caribbean. We can meet this
demand, and then start exporting again."

Sugar, the mainstay of Dominican agriculture, is also expecting increased
output. Dominican raw sugar production has fallen from over 1m tonnes a year
over a decade ago, to 420,000 tonnes in 1999. Drought, hurricanes and an
inefficient state sugar company have been blamed. An improvement is expected
following the leasing two years ago of state- owned mills to foreign and
local consortia, including Conazucar, a subsidiary of Zucarmex of Mexico.

"We expect the administration to focus on agriculture," said Mr Benitez.
"President Mejía is not a politician who has come to learn what is going on.
He is an agricultural businessman who has come into politics knowing what is
going on."