Port-au-Prince following the January 12 earthquake
It is truly a wonder to observe how the world has opened its purse to the people of Haiti following the devastating January 12 earthquake that killed up to 200,000 people and has left hundreds of thousands homeless and destitute. What few of these benefactors realize, however, is that, in many ways, Haiti’s ordeal is only just beginning.
Haiti is a largely agricultural society. More than half of its population, i.e. somewhere between five and six million people, resides in rural areas, and eighty-five percent of them are involved in farming. Agriculture makes up around twenty-six percent of Haiti’s economic output. Haitian farmers were already rocked by back-to-back hurricanes in 2008. Most of these people have been surviving on less than $2 a day. Now that the earthquake has essentially wiped out Port-au-Prince and other urban areas, large numbers of people have been displaced to rural districts. Half a million have fled the capital alone. This has had a profound effect on local food resources. Even under “normal” conditions, one quarter of Haitian children are undernourished and a third of the total population suffers from chronic hunger. The mud pies of Haiti are symbolic of the country’s systematic underdevelopment. Since the earthquake, the situation has deteriorated beyond belief.
Haitian distribution chains and local markets have been profoundly disrupted. As Robin Duffleurant, a farmer in the devastated town of Leogane, said in an interview with IRIN, a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “We are trying to sell manioc to markets in the capital, but fewer people there are buying. Some markets were destroyed,” meaning that he has only been able to sell fifty packages of manioc per week instead of the usual 2,000. “Other than manioc, there is not much we can harvest now to sell... We are at the mercy of the ground and rains. And even if we could grow something, who is around to buy it?”
Faced with these challenges, it is uncertain whether Haitians will be in a position to plant their crops in the coming weeks. Even in the best of times the country grows only forty percent of its own food while exporting speciality crops such as vanilla, coffee etc. and importing rice and other staples from the USA and other countries. American farm subsidies and trade policies, which help flood Haitian and other Third World markets with cheap American foodstuffs at the expense of local production, are directly responsible for much of the misery Haiti is currently experiencing.
Farming in Haiti
All in all, the earthquake could not have come at a worse time for Haiti. If it had struck five or more months ago, the country could have adjusted its needs and prepared for the planting season well in advance. As it is, it looks as if Haiti is about to suffer a second disaster in the form of an incomplete and otherwise failed harvest, which will only increase starvation and dependence on other countries.
In response to this challenge, Haiti's Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Development has asked for $700 million from the international community for a comprehensive agricultural makeover. These funds will go towards the cultivation of small gardens, sweet potato cultivation, supplies of seeds and tools to farmers, the repair of irrigation canals, and also road construction and other vital projects.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has allocated $23 million for the following measures:
- rapidly restore food production capacity of affected households prior to the March 2010 planting season;
- provide inputs for backyard garden production to affected urban and rural families;
- rehabilitate critical production infrastructure, such as irrigation canals, food storage and processing facilities and small feeder roads; and
- coordinate agricultural activities for the emergency response and recovery initiatives through leadership of the Agriculture Cluster.