Haitian agriculture pays high price for sins against the soil


October 15, 2010

By Kenneth Kidd, Toronto Star

View original article here

"It may have been good for my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake…. I have to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else."
-- Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, apologizing March 10 for the promotion of subsidized American food.

KENSCOFF, HAITI— “Come with me.” With her salt and pepper hair streaming out behind a baseball cap, Jane Wynne saunters down the path that leads from her verandah to the plant nursery, her little piece of Eden on a steep slope that eventually comes to a small stream.

There are ancient pine trees and thick stands of bamboo all around the perimeter, their dappled shade cooling everything. The air is moist. All manner of greenery abounds.

Paths wend their way past raised beds framed by little canals designed to hold rainwater until it slowly soaks into the ground.

Every few paces, Wynne stops in her Wellingtons to gently caress this plant or that tree, telling of its uses, or how her renowned father, Victor Wynne, had first brought it to Haiti.

There are pepinos from South America, evergreen shrubs that produce a sweet fruit akin to melon or pear. Passion fruit from Mexico is busy ripening on tall vines, and the place is peppered with stands of bamboo, some of the 11 varieties Wynne pére introduced, such as the Chinese ones that are so much more durable than native renditions.

Mulch is underfoot and ground-covering plants are everywhere, especially sundry types of legumes — plants that fix nitrogen in the soil, providing a crucial nutrient to other plants.

The Wynne nursery is everything that the rest of Haiti mostly is not – lush, stable and productive, bestowing a gentleness at odds with the chaos and violence that has otherwise become the country’s signature.

Wynne, now 64, stops to tell a story, her normally sing-song voice growing reflective as she imparts a piece of wisdom learned at her father’s knee.

“When I was a little girl, he kept saying to us, if we let the soil go, it’s going to wash down, not only with everything we have from the soil, but the youth. It will wash them all down to the ocean.

“I saw it. They all left the mountains to go to Port-au-Prince to find jobs and when they get to Port-au-Prince they take boats and go to Miami.”

The simple narrative of Haiti’s ecological destruction mostly features a ravenous, shortsighted population that blithely toppled nearly all of the country’s trees for timber and charcoal.

This is largely the story you get in Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, which offers up the more heartening contrast of the Dominican Republic, where public policy in the 20th century actively supported natural preserves and agrarian life.

Across the border in Haiti, alas, you have a country that now loses an estimated 37 million tons of topsoil to erosion every year, or enough to cover 12,000 hectares.

But it’s not just about trees. It’s about how you protect and nourish the soil you have, of which trees are only part.

When the colonial French were running the place until Haiti’s independence in 1804, maximum extraction was the order of the day. “There’s no evidence that there was ever any concern for (soil) conservation,” notes Gerald Murray, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Florida who’s been studying Haiti since the 1970s.

The only exception was unintended: to grow coffee in the mountains using the techniques of the day required tree cover to produce good crops.
After the revolution, the freed slaves simply farmed as they had under the French, which Wynne says was especially disastrous when they started moving into the more mountainous areas of the country.

In the lowlands, you set up irrigation canals specifically meant to carry away the excess water of heavy rains, or flood a large area in times of drought. It’s a system designed to move large amounts of water, so that plants neither dry out nor drown.

Transferring that technique to hillier land, where rainfall was more reliable, meant that water and topsoil were relentlessly washed downhill in open-ended channels.

For Wynne’s father, an American engineer with degrees from Harvard and MIT, it didn’t take long for him to see the inherent folly in this.
He’d come to Haiti in the 1920s, during the U.S. occupation, to help build roads and bridges, later married a Haitian woman from Gonaïves and started his farm in 1956.

At first, the senior Wynne aped the terracing he’d seen at Machu Picchu in Peru, but it proved so labour-intensive that he switched to a system of canals that left the existing contour of the land in place, but safely trapped water until it could soak into the soil.

He tried spreading the word as best he could, visiting government officials, but success was halting.

“My dad used to say, just keep on, keep on, one day people will understand,” Wynne recalls.

At least around Kenscoff, where higher-margin produce like carrots and broccoli can still be grown, she says there’s renewed interest in the organic techniques of her father. “They know they need to do something, so now they’re coming to us.”

Yet in places where Haitian farmers now employ canals and terraces, there is still a bitter irony, in that their primary aim isn’t to stop the run-off of water or preserve soil integrity. It’s to stop the chemical fertilizers they now have to buy at great expense from washing away.

From the makeshift stalls of Port-au-Prince’s roadside grocery vendors, the Statue of Liberty peaks out at regular intervals, a large black portrait stamped on the front of 25-kilogram bags of long-grain white rice.

“Product of USA” is printed across the bottom, courtesy of Riceland Foods Inc., Stuttgart, Arkansas.

Haitians simply call it: “Miami rice.”

As a plantation economy, Haiti had once been among France’s richest colonies. And despite the massive damage of erosion, the country could still mostly feed itself until the 1980s. But by the time the earthquake struck, Haiti was importing more than half of its food and 80 per cent of its rice.

Such is Haiti’s dependence that it now ranks as the fourth-largest market for U.S. rice – after Japan, Mexico and Canada.

Population growth was obviously key. Roughly half of the country’s 9 million souls are under the age of 25, and Port-au-Prince has grown from 732,000 people in the early 1980s to more than 3 million today, the vast majority living in slums or tent cities.

The “pull” of that migration might have been hoped-for factory jobs in the city, but the “push” has been a systematic attack on agrarian society dating at least to the porcine slaughter of the early 1980s.

The Haitian pig was never a fetching beast, but it was durable, could mostly find its own food and water, easily reproduced itself and was resistant to disease. Those qualities also made it a store of value for peasant farmers, easily converted to cash when needed.

But amid the swine-flu scare, then-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier succumbed to U.S. pressure and ordered the destruction of Haiti’s native pigs.

Their replacements, pigs from the American mid-west, were so dependant on imported feed, drugs and clean water that Haitians called them “little princes,” most of which more or less promptly expired.

The whole episode was akin to a massive stock market crash, and it only got bleaker with Duvalier’s departure and the international pressure, on through the Clinton administration, to dismantle the tariffs that had protected Haitian agriculture.

In short order, Haiti’s domestic rice and sugar production went into freefall.

It was the classic, neo-liberal prescription, in which developing countries were expected to prosper once they got rid of inefficient domestic production (such as small farms) and entered a new, free-trade era on the strength of a low-wage workforce that could, say, start assembling garments instead.

At its heart, though, is a related debate, one still largely unresolved in Haiti. Should the goal be food security — giving people access to cheap, imported food — or food sovereignty, in which Haiti might once again begin feeding itself?

In one of those portable and ostensibly “temporary” offices that populate the United Nations compound in Port-au-Prince, Volny Paultre is leaning back in his chair, hands clasped together in the fashion of prayer.

An agronomist from Haiti’s Artibonite region, Paultre now serves as project chief for the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Haiti, a perch that puts him at the centre of current efforts to forge a long-term farm policy.

As a practical matter, he concedes, most everything is in limbo until after the November presidential election, but he quickly sketches the broad directional outline.

In a perfect world, he says, the Haitian government would commit to a 30-year-plan that would emphasize exports of certain crops, chiefly mangoes, coffee, and vetiver, the grass whose roots are used to produce fragrant oils.

The real key, though, would be fostering a shift toward the export of more value-added renditions of Haiti’s produce, such as juice and perfume. “Those would be the sort of initiatives we have to multiply,” he says.

The result, in other words, would be a far more commercial farm sector.

But Paultre is just as quick to point out the many hurdles, not least the ability to enforce long-term policy amid Haiti’s history of notoriously changeable governments.

Nor are there enough sufficiently capitalized players in agriculture, a list that would include not just entrepreneurs but the sundry farm co-ops and associations, such as the Mouvement Paysans Papaye. “Right now, the existing organizations are not capable of doing the transformation,” says Paultre.

Only about one-third of Haiti is arable, and Paultre estimates that roughly 25 per cent of it is owned by the country’s rich elite, 30 per cent by the government and the rest is a complicated patchwork of tiny plots, nearly all of them vulnerable to challenges over who owns what.
Haiti doesn’t have a recognizably modern land registry. Instead there’s an uneven paper trail that sometimes features conflicting documentation decades or even a century apart.

Just about every piece of land in the country has at some point been the subject of lengthy ownership disputes– including Paultre’s family seat in the Artibonite. So, yes, modern land titles would help, but alone wouldn’t spark development.

“Land titles don’t resolve the problem,” he says. “It doesn’t mean the big owners are going to invest in agriculture.”

And even the existing farm sector isn’t renewing itself; it has no attractions for younger generations. “Agriculture in Haiti is for people who have no other options. They are the lowest social class.”

In Haiti, the quickest way to gauge someone’s agricultural politics is to ask them how many farmers there are in the country. The responses can range from hundreds of thousands to millions, and since there is no official tally, what these guesstimates really tell you is how they’re defining ‘farmer.’

If you have in mind something even vaguely recognizable to a North American view of farming, which is to say, a moderately sized commercial venture, then the number is bound to be low.

As it happens, that’s not the way Haitians view farming. If you grow anything, no matter how little, then you’re a farmer.

So you end up with a Charles Henri Baker, who is again running for president, talking about the country’s “three million farming families” and how pumping money into that sector, especially through small loans, would do much more for Haiti’s prosperity than, say, expanding the garment industry in which Baker just happens to be a major player.

This is the back-to-the-future remedy, and it meshes with the adjacent goal of getting people to move back to the country, away from congested Port-au-Prince. But it won’t be easy.

In the 1970s, when Murray first lived and studied in Haiti, a rural family’s path to financial security meant acquiring enough land that you could mostly support yourself and have something to pass on to your offspring.

Now, not so much. “The collective national desire is to get out or at least get your kids out of Haiti,” he says. “The agricultural future of Haiti, given that mindset, is a bit bleak.”

Yet it’s not a completely insoluble problem, and what makes Murray’s prescription so appealing is that, counter-intuitively, it doesn’t lavish loans and aid directly on small farmers.

Especially in rural areas, the lion’s share of commerce is carried out by madames sara, market women who sell all manner of food, seed and other products. If you want to pump working capital into the countryside, says Murray, you offer low-interest loans to the madames sara.

The market women desperately want more capital, but farmers are mostly unwillingly to take out loans because the risk is too great. “There are parts of Haiti where you stand more than a 50 per cent chance of getting no crop or a mediocre crop because of drought conditions,” says Murray.

“It’s a lot safer to lend $300 to a market woman than to lend $300 to a farmer, unless the farmer’s got irrigation.”

But some of the money will accrue to farms – courtesy of the produce madames sara buy for resale, or the profits that then become available to their farmer husbands.

“The deficit isn’t knowledge, it’s resources,” says Murray. “It’s not even the absence of land. The major deficit, when I’ve talked to farmers all over, is Nou pa gen kob – we have no money.”

Subsidized seed and farm implements would also help, so long as the distribution similarly goes through the madames sara, since they already sell most seed, and lets them make a profit.

“The general guideline would be, don’t slash the throat of the market women.”

Jane Wynne emerges onto the verandah carrying a tray of sandwiches. Inside little white buns are avocado, cabbage, tomato and onion, and it proves to be a heavenly combination, surpassing just about any meal in many visits to Haiti.

Everything save the buns came from Wynne’s garden, and the coffee was made from beans grown and roasted by a neighbour.

It’s a scene that brings to mind what Stefen Stoll, an associate professor of history at Fordham University, has called the contradiction inherent in Haiti’s original slave revolution, since the social aims were ultimately so conservative and traditional:

“Agrarian households pursue stability, not wealth; sufficiency, not taxable income.”

As if to embody those goals, Wynne’s cousin, Frank Vendryes, ambles over and sits in a nearby chair, talking about his particular passion, bamboo. “There are thousands of things you can make with bamboo,” he says.

Vendryes has been fashioning it into musical flutes, but his latest project is transforming split bamboo into garden rakes so sturdy they can stand up on their own, a feat he’s soon demonstrating.

He thinks the rakes are eminently saleable, but has no illusions about making a lot of money, never really had that in mind. If anything, he’s wary of people who talk about grand schemes to make Haiti wealthy.

Prosperity might come, but not until later.

Here, Vendryes echoes a mantra often voiced by others but, nine months after the earthquake, has yet to be made manifest.

“The most important thing,” he says, “is getting people out of misery and into some kind of dignified poverty.”

Kenneth Kidd is a Star feature writer whose work has garnered acclaim at both the National Magazine Awards and the National Newspaper Awards. Kidd has also served as the Star's Business Editor and as Editor of The Sunday Star. He has made four trips to Haiti since the earthquake.

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