Turén (Venezuela) (AFP) – The first downpour of the rainy season in Venezuela’s western Portuguesa region has fallen and now is the time to plant corn, a staple in the South American country known for its traditional arepas.
But as in much of Latin America, the race is on to find enough fertilizer for crops.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 10,000 kilometers away has limited the supply of the main agricultural supplement throughout the region.
Some 80% of the 180,000 tons of fertilizer used annually in Venezuela are imported, mainly from Russia but also from Ukraine and Belarus, according to the agricultural producers’ union Fedeagro.
Western sanctions on Russia and Belarus, as well as Ukraine’s difficulties in exporting under siege, have sent all of Latin America scrambling to find replacements.
Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertilizers with more than 12% of the world market, but its sales have been practically paralyzed by the sanctions.
“Thank God we managed to buy Russian fertilizers during trade negotiations in October and November, paid in December and they were able to arrive in February and March,” Celso Fantinel, president of Fedeagro, told AFP.
However, Fantinel said they were still short of around a third of what they needed – but time waits for no one and there is no time to find alternatives.
“We are producing 30% of our capacity” due to Venezuela’s economic crisis which has seen the country suffer eight years of recession and four years of hyperinflation, said Ramon Bolotin, president of independent agricultural producers PAI.
“Even so, there is not enough fertilizer for that 30 percent.”
“Chemical fertilizers are essential”, he said, for a country where 3% of the 30 million inhabitants work in agriculture “to feed the remaining 97%”.
“We’ll work with what we have…although in some places they’ll have to underdose.”
For Venezuelan farmers, it’s yet another headache in a country that is already suffering from fuel shortages due to the collapse of its vital oil industry.
In Portuguesa, an agricultural region known as the “breadbasket” of Venezuela, lines at gas stations stretch for miles.
The Venezuelan agricultural sector expected to sow 250,000 hectares of corn, 50,000 of rice, 60,000 of sugar cane and 70,000 of other products such as coffee and cocoa, according to Fedeagro.
The lack of fertilizer is a huge obstacle. A hectare of maize crops can produce 10 tons of harvest, but this figure can drop to three or four tons if the conditions are not good.
All of Latin America faces the same problem, especially its two agricultural giants.
Last year, Brazil imported nearly 81% of the 40.5 million tonnes of fertilizer it used, 20% of which came from Russia, according to the government.
Argentina imported 60% of its 6.6 million tons, of which 15% came from Russia.
Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru are also, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on Russian fertilizers.
In March, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso said his government would subsidize fertilizer imports because of “the increase in the price of agricultural materials” caused by the international crisis.
Horst Hobener, a maize farmer in Turen, Portuguesa, told AFP that prices had risen 120% in a few months.
The collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry has affected the petrochemical industry, which in the past supplied domestic demand for fertilizers.
“It was felt a lot,” said Fedeagro vice-president Osman Quero.
“For the past three years, we have been sourcing fertilizer ourselves” through intermediaries.
Farmers have called on the government to reactivate its petrochemical complex in northern Carabobo state, which has been half crippled since 2017.
According to the state oil company PDVSA, it has the capacity to produce 150,000 metric tons of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers per year.
The Russian fertilizers used by the farmers of Turen are composed of 10% nitrogen, 26% phosphorus and 26% potassium.
“We have two fundamental ingredients: urea (nitrogen) and phosphorus and we would only have to import potassium chloride,” Fantinel said.
They are exploring other options, but the global shortfall has forced many exporters to suspend sales due to their own domestic needs.
Ruben Carrasco of the Lima Chamber of Commerce told AFP that Russia was looking for ways to use third parties like Norway to get back into the market.
“Who knows, maybe next year other alternative sources will be tried,” Bolotin said.
© 2022 AFP