How has the ministry responded to the drought conditions brought about by El Niño?
Our country, like the rest of the Pacific region, experienced one of the longest droughts in recent history. The summer of 2016 is predicted to be very severe, and since 2015 was also very dry, a shortage of water for agriculture and cattle production could result in severe losses. Based on these predictions, the ministry launched, in April 2015, a study in every province, district by district, to find out how could they be affected. A drought plan was developed for the entire country at the cost of $14.5 million. On September 27, 2015 a nutritional program for cattle and a plan to build wells, lakes, and water collection ponds started in the province of Los Santos, which was one of the worst affected areas. About 2,800 cattle died in the province in 2015 while 5,000ha of corn and 40% of the tomato crop were lost. In February 2016, a similar program was launched in Herrera, to be followed by the provinces of Cocle, Veraguas, and so on. Panama was blessed with tropical rain for many years, so we did not have the need to collect and store water. The government recently appointed a High-Level National Committee with the help of UN and other international agencies in order to establish water policies for the next 25 years.
What are the ministry's plans to make Panama a food distribution hub?
Panama's strategic location, solid banking system, status as a logistics hub through its airports, the wide variety of commercial products going through duty free zones, and the more than 15,000 ships crossing the Panama Canal every year, some of which go back to Asia empty after leaving their cargo here, all make Panama the ideal site to be a food distribution hub. Under the leadership of the Ministry of Commerce and together with the Ministry of Agriculture, private executive associations, producers, and several countries that have demonstrated interest in this idea. The government is working on the necessary documents and surveys to develop this project. The center will include packing centers, refrigeration storage, facilities to supply ships' needs for their employees and passengers, and a logistics center for brokers to take orders for major supermarkets and distributors all over the world. A preliminary trial was conducted last year in which a ship with 7,000 tons of bulk rice came from the US and in 10 days all this rice was packed into 100-pound bags. Later, some 400 containers were shipped to countries as far away as Saudi Arabia.
How can Panama exploit opportunities in agro-tourism?
With the Ministry of Tourism and our Agro-tourism department, we conduct educational programs and seminars that teach producers how to attract international and local tourists. Campaigns to attract tourists to production sites can help them understand the new technologies used to produce and preserve healthy food, learn more about our country's traditions, seen different forest trails, organic farms, and so on. We started new coffee and sugar cane routes that feature different plantations and processing plants. All agro-tourist farms have to be evaluated and certified every two years by the ministry.
What are some initiatives to increase production for small farmer?
In Panama we have around 350,000 producers. Approximately 80% are small producers who are responsible for 20% of all the food being produced. Our main target is to get them organized into associations or cooperatives, so that we can better assist them and help them sell their crops. At the present, we work with some international agencies to teach them to be more efficient by using new certified seeds, water supply systems, and fertilizing techniques. There are also seminars and field trip experiences on processing, drying fruits, cheese making, and so on so that they can add value to their crops.