Oct. 2, 2019
Though Panama is more known as a service-based economy with most of its GDP coming from maritime transportation and the Panama Canal, agriculture remains an important activity, especially in low-income parts of the country. As of 2019, there are just under 250,000 farmers in Panama, some of whom work on large and mechanized farms, while others are engaged in subsistence farming.
According to the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO), small family farms which produce primarily for home consumption dominate the country, forming up to 80% of all farmers.
As such, organizing and promoting family farming has become a priority for the government. Since 2015-2016, such farmers and farms have been identified and mapped across Panama. And, in 2017, 11 local committees of family farming were formed in different provinces.
Through a ministerial resolution, those efforts ultimately culminated in the foundation of the National Family Agriculture Dialogue Committee of Panama (CONADAF) in 2018 to create a space for dialogue between all stakeholders including family farmers—who hitherto did not have a voice—and the country's larger agriculture sector.
There is no single definition for family farming, but it often takes place in farms smaller than 5ha that are worked on by a family from a nearby community. In addition to home consumption, family farmers sell their surplus in local markets. To bring some order and sustainability to the more-or-less chaotic practice of family farming, the Panamanian Ministry of Agricultural Development launched a national family agriculture plan in 2018.
Supported by FAO, the plan will also contribute to food security, which is still a matter of concern in Panama, especially among indigenous and rural communities. According to a 2017 report by the Ministry of Social Development, 400,000 Panamanians are affected by nutrition insecurity.
CONADAF was behind the preparation of the plan, though FAO provided the required technical backing; the initiative is also supported by the Mesoamérica sin Hambre (Mesoamerica without Hunger) program and the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation.
The nationwide plan will, among other things, facilitate the access of small farmers to banking services and low-interest loans, provide farmers with technical guidance, and—only if they are interested—help them improve their yields by carrying out research on their farm.
Indigenous people, women, and youth will be given priority, says FAO's Panama office. The initiative will help family farmers in the marketing stage, as well. The Ministry of Agricultural Development believes that formalized farming and marketing are essential for the promotion of family farming in the country.
There are already talks about a future plan by CONADAF to give more visibility to the products of family farmers and small farmers in Panama, enhancing their access to potential customers.
To launch the present plan, CONADAF has carried out a series of meetings and consultations with nearly 350 family farmers as well as officials working in the agriculture sector in 2018.
If nothing else, the plan may give new life to Panama's agriculture sector. The number of people working in the sector has been constantly dropping between since 1991, according to the World Bank. In the following months we will see whether this trend will change in light of the new initiative.
Panama has great potential for the production of crops such as bananas, coffee, cocoa beans, sugar, and rice, but there are bottlenecks in the way of production. As with all many tropical countries with a fair share of rain, soil erosion is always a major threat. In order to stop the already thin topsoil from being washed away, the cultivable lands should be constantly tended by farmers trained in conservative measures to remain conducive to farming.
Fortunately, the land has become more suitable for agriculture in recent years. While only 25% of the country's land was suited to farming in 1980, in 2015 over 30% of the land was ready for cultivation, according to the World Bank. It is hoped that, by organizing and educating family farmers, the new initiative will also lead to the more widespread of practice of soil conservation measures across Panama.