Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Rural Haiti: The issue is food

Church World Service on Reuters Alert Net

Petite Riviere de l’Artibonite, Haiti — It was nearing the end of another hot, sunny day near Petite Riviere in the northern department, or province, of Artibonite, and Arnold Alcim stood on his two-acre plot of land and shook his head in frustration.

Life as a farmer has never been more difficult than it is now, said the octogenarian, recalling earlier times when credit and new equipment were easier to get and when the land itself seemed to suffer less.

Though this seemingly lush farmland often called Haiti’s “rice bowl” looks fertile, recent years have taken a severe toll. Hurricanes in 2008 destroyed three-quarters of Haiti’s agricultural land, according to the World Food Program – a situation worsened by Haiti’s deforested and denuded hillsides, which made farmland in valleys like the one in which Alcim lives and works all the more vulnerable.

Resulting floods worsened the problems of drainage on farms, and the hurricanes also destroyed large numbers of bridges and roads. When compounded with the cycles of debt and high interest rates that farmers and farm advocates compare to usury, the accumulated problems amount to a real crisis for rural Haiti.

The washed-out farmland and destroyed infrastructure created what the World Food Program calls “pockets of severe malnutrition.”

For Alcim�, a small, spry man, the problems are disappointing because he never expected them at the end of a hard life spent on the land. But he soldiers on, he said, because, “I have no other options.”

The problems faced by Alcim and others in rural Haiti may seem like something apart from the efforts to recover from the January earthquake. But they aren’t. If, as many believe, Haiti must “decentralize” from overcrowded and over-congested Port-au-Prince as part of its nationwide recovery, humanitarian actors like the ACT Alliance will need to develop strategies to help rural Haiti, say humanitarian and development workers within the network.

Dealing with food, hunger and nutrition will have to be part of that response – though, of course, the distribution of food or cash grants used for food purchases was a critical part of the initial post-12 January emergency response by ACT members and their partners both in and outside Port-au-Prince.

But the longer-term issues remains vexing, as statistics from the World Food Program make all too clear. Out of a population of 9 million, nearly a third, 2.4 million Haitians, are “food insecure.”

What that means in practical terms is that one-third of newborn babies in Haiti are born underweight, and nearly one in ten is born acutely undernourished, the WFP said. That has led to large numbers of children – by some estimates, a quarter of all children in Haiti – being stunted, an obvious sign of malnutrition.

The “why” of such disheartening figures are multi-layered, but a key reason Haiti faces an ongoing hunger problem is due to food policies.

A 2006 study by ACT member Christian Aid noted that economic reform measures required of Haiti by large Western lending institutions in the 1990s after a period of political instability resulted in trade liberalization, which among other things, reduced tariffs on imported food.

While that move temporarily reduced food prices for urban residents, the overall effect was for Haiti to become a net importer of food. That, Christian Aid argued, has been calamitous, since it depressed domestic production.

“In this environment, it is becoming more and more difficult to buy food,” the Christian Aid study said. “Agricultural liberalization has contributed to hunger becoming more widespread in both rural and urban areas.”

It added: “The impacts have been widespread, contributing to serious economic and social decline. It is unacceptable to abandon poor farmers who are unable to compete with imports.”

At the community level, in Artibonite, that has resulted in a loss of farm income – posing challenges for farmers like Alcim, but also making it more difficult for rural residents to simply eat.

The policy of “making it cheaper to import rice than to grow it left many in rural areas without a means to make a living – so they gravitated toward the city,” said Lisa Rothenberger, a relief officer with the American Baptist Churches USA, a supporter of ACT Alliance member Church World Service.

Raising tariffs to stimulate local farming and making investments in such inputs as good seed, tools and fertilizer could, said Rothenberger, “turn this tide and redistribute Haiti’s population in a more sustainable way and also empower Haitians to meet their own food security needs.”

For farmers, the solutions are relatively fixable, said Haitian agronomist Nicolas Altidor of Petite Riviere. “Help the planters, give them support like fertilizer, reasonable credit instead of usury and fix the drainage so that fields are not always flooding.” he said.

The ACT Alliance is committed to those goals; as one example, ACT member CWS has, as part of its Haiti recovery efforts, recently announced it is expanding its support for a program to assist 13 farmer cooperatives serving more than 3,000 members, as well as internally displaced persons in the Artibonite and Northwest regions.

The cooperatives provide members with access to revolving funds for necessities like seeds (produced in Haiti), tools and fertilizers; access to small credit to help rural women start or expand a micro business; training and technical assistance including adult literacy; and emotional support to members and their families.

In this work, CWS is supporting its Haitian partner, Sant Kretyen pour Developman Entegre, known as SKDE; other ACT members are supporting similar efforts by Haitian partners to improve food security – Haitians’ access to affordable food.

These are “small-step” efforts, obviously, and the long-term issue of “building up” rural Haiti will take years to sort out. Indeed, it may take some time, if the experience of 20-year-old Datus Raynashca, is any indication.

Raynashca joined with others in Petite Riviere who gathered for an afternoon meal of white rice and black beans as part of a feeding program initiated by community members with ties to local ACT Alliance partners. The program has provided meals to both those who left Port-au-Prince after the quake and local residents hosting the family and friends who have joined them.

Raynashca told of being displaced along with her father from Port-au-Prince. Raynashca said she doubted she would, or even could, remain in Petite Riviere. An aspiring secretary, she still feels the pull of the capital. Of life in Petite Riviere, she said, “There is nothing here.”

But 6-year-old David Jean Datus, who lost a leg in the quake and moved with family to Petite Riviere, said he would like to be a farmer – and doesn’t believe being physically handicapped can stop him.

“I want to grow plantains,” he said of the banana common in Haiti and the Caribbean.

As the lunch-time meal ended, with dishes to be washed and the cooks scraping off the heavy pans, the Rev. Raymond Mesadieu, a community activist who works on behalf of local farmers, reminded a group of visitors what constitutes security in rural Haiti.

“There’s education,” he said. “And then there’s nutrition.”

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