A Quake-Scarred Nation Tries a Rural Road to Recovery

Agriculture, photo Ben Depp.jpg

Photo Ben Depp

By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD, New York Times, Dec 26, 2011
PAPAYE, Haiti — For months after the earthquake that struck the capital, Manel Laurore pulled shattered bodies from his neighbors’ homes, hunkered in fetid refugee camps and scrounged for food and water. Today, his main worries are when his bean, corn and plantain crops will come in. “I will never go back to Port-au-Prince,” said Mr. Laurore, 32, a former shopkeeper who was sifting soil to plant a tomato garden, referring to the capital. “It left a strong pain inside. Here the work is hard, but you live in total peace.”
His work, on a 15-acre cooperative farm in Papaye, represents a small but promising success for an ambitious program being promoted by aid workers, government officials and international donors: saving the country by developing the countryside.
When the earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010, planners and visionaries here and abroad looked past the rubble and saw an opportunity to fix the structural problems that have kept Haiti stuck in poverty and instability. An idea that won early support was to shrink the overcrowded, underemployed, violence-ridden capital and revive the desiccated, disused farmland that had long been unable to feed the country.
“Decentralization is a critical cornerstone supporting my vision for a new Haiti,” President Michel Martelly told potential investors last month. “We want to strengthen and empower our rural communities and create new ones.” But the vision has run up against Haitian reality: myriad economic and infrastructure deficiencies, the lack of credible opportunity in rural areas and the fading of international interest and funds.
Reviving rural Haiti would wean the country off an overreliance on imported food while creating jobs in the countryside, helping to discourage mass migration to urban sinkholes like Port-au-Prince. Before the quake, nearly a quarter of the population lived in the capital, where two-thirds of the labor force had no formal jobs and overcrowding was considered a major contributor to the quake’s estimated death toll of 300,000.
Tens of thousands of people fled Port-au-Prince for rural areas immediately after the quake, but most have since returned, American and Haitian government officials said, finding little opportunity and food to be scarce. “We need to reverse the trend of people in rural areas moving to the city,” said Ari Toubo Ibrahim, the Haiti representative for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The organization says it believes that, with enough training and support, about a tenth of the 600,000 people still in earthquake camps could ultimately move to the countryside.
New factories are also part of the plan. A South Korean-run industrial park in the north, partly financed by the United States, is expected to open next year, providing at least 20,000 jobs. But experts say agriculture is the nation’s biggest need.
Farming has declined to 25 percent of the economy today from 40 percent a decade ago, making Haiti more dependent on imported food. Today, the government says, 52 percent of the food Haitians eat comes from abroad, compared with 20 percent a few decades ago. The decline in farming dates primarily to the mid-1980s, when the government encouraged urbanization, and it worsened under a trade embargo during political turmoil in the 1990s. When trade restrictions loosened, the market was flooded with cheap, foreign staples like American rice, Dominican poultry and milk, in powdered form, from as far away as Europe.
A series of storms in 2008 further wiped out farms, and riots over the soaring cost of food, owing to fluctuations in the world market, led lawmakers to oust the prime minister.
Recently, though, there have been signs of a potential turnaround. This month, the World Bank approved $50 million for agriculture projects. “When agriculture grows, gross domestic product grows,” said Diego Arias, an agriculture economist who analyzes Haiti at the World Bank.
Signature Haitian products like mangoes, coffee and cocoa are getting a burst of overseas attention, and BioTek, a Florida company, is awaiting approval from the new government on a long-awaited public-private plan to revive Haiti’s last remaining sugar mill, in Léogâne, one of the areas hit hardest by the quake.
Haitian specialty coffee is in demand in restaurants in New York, Miami and other American cities, and the Inter-American Development Bank, Nestlé and Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers have announced a $3 million effort to help 10,000 coffee farmers replant trees on denuded hills and increase production for both home consumption and export.
The American grocery chain Whole Foods has been selling a variety of mango indigenous to Haiti, and Lèt Agogo, a Haitian organization whose Haitian Creole name means Milk Aplenty, has stepped up a program to give cows and training to farmers and to process the milk into a sweetened drink that Haitian schoolchildren commonly consume.
Taiwanese agronomists have expanded a program to help rice farmers increase their yields, though imported rice, much of it from the United States, is still far cheaper in markets than Haitian-grown rice.
But the challenges are staggering, and most concern money. Irrigation is lacking, and poorly constructed ports and roads disrupt the delivery of produce to domestic and international markets. Government efforts ground to a virtual halt for months last year after a political crisis swirled around a botched election.
Foreign aid has slowed to a trickle. Only 43 percent of the $4.59 billion promised has been received and disbursed, according to the United Nations. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the body created to coordinate and prioritize aid, closed in October when its mandate expired, with little sign that it will be renewed. The panel, led by former President Bill Clinton, was set up to provide some assurance to international donors, wary of channeling aid to a historically corrupt Haitian government, that their money would be well spent. Its departure raises questions about whether the remaining pledges will ever be fulfilled.
Haiti’s five-year agriculture plan developed after the quake has received only about half of its nearly $800 million budget. Haitian officials say the government actually needs $1 billion to $2 billion to carry out the plan. The new agriculture minister, Hébert Docteur, said he hoped to carry out the program with whatever resources he had to help struggling farmers. “Too often they are trying with hand tools to get something from the land, but it is not nearly enough,” he said.
The United States has opened several training centers that aim to instruct hundreds of farmers in rudimentary practices often taken for granted in other countries.
Wansy Jean Poix, 36, a sorghum and corn farmer in La Tramblay, near Port-au-Prince, said he was accustomed to planting by simply tossing seeds on a large patch of ground. Now he plants in rows, to maximize the use of the land. “We increased production so there is more for ourselves and to sell on market,” he said.
The experimental farm in Papaye, three hours from the capital, at once demonstrates the promise and the pitfalls that face the effort to expand farming beyond the hardiest takers. The village was created last summer by Mouvman Peyizan Papay, one of the country’s largest peasant organizations, working with the Presbyterian and Unitarian Universalist Churches in the United States and other organizations. Together, they plan to build four more such farms in the central region.
The 10 families here grow their own food and have begun planting crops like corn and plantains to sell. Though the houses lack electricity, they are roomier than those many of them left in Port-au-Prince. But the project has relied on substantial help to get off the ground. The total cost for the five villages will be $1.6 million, almost all of it from churches and nongovernmental organizations.
The United Nations is studying the project, but it is unclear how well it could be duplicated. Similar villages have been proposed elsewhere, but beyond the money, city dwellers have to believe that it is worth the effort to move their families to spend hours in the hot sun, hoeing and planting. “If they have water, technical assistance and credit they can survive,” said Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, executive director of Mouvman Peyizan Papay.
Emmanuel Jean Pierre, 30, already has found that subsistence farming is not enough for him and has set up a small side business charging cellphones in the village using a solar battery he acquired in Port-au-Prince. He complains of the back-breaking work and misses the energy of the city, the parties, the friends. But with work scarce there and his small grocery business destroyed in the quake, for now, he said, he will stick it out here.
“If I saw a big change in economic opportunity in Port-au-Prince I would probably go back,” he said. “But I would rather stay here all my life.”
Comment from the Corbett mail list, Dec 29:
I thought this was a very good article. But I would like to know why reporters and also the State Dept. keep on saying that there is a shortage of food!! What they really mean is that there is a shortage of MONEY TO BUY THE FOOD. But that is not the same as a shortage of food. Everywhere you go, marchands are on the street selling fruit and vegetables.

It gives a very bad idea of how Haiti is. I'm particularly incensed when I read the State Dept. saying there's a serious shortage of food and water!!! Who writes this stuff? They've obviously not been in Haiti!! We're never going to get visitors coming in if they think they're going to starve!!