Rebuilding Haiti - from the soil up: Can farming save the day?

By René Bruemmer, The Montreal Gazette, July 2, 2010
Rebecca Brutus, 4, hangs on tight to a package of food her family recieved in Leogane, Haiti. Agricultural officials and aid workers worry that while global efforts to help earthquake victims in Haiti are hitting their stride, the ripple effect in the countryside threatens to stymie home farming and worsen.

MONTREAL – The key to Haiti’s salvation, says the man who would be president of the nation that has languished in terminal poverty for generations, is a “no-brainer.”

“There are three million farming families in Haiti,” Charles Henri Baker, a leading candidate in Haiti’s coming elections, told The Gazette. “The textile sector, to which I belong ... could create 100,000, maybe 200,000 jobs. Agriculture can create three million jobs, bring down the cost of living and decentralize the four million people living in and around Port-au-Prince. ... They could go back to their villages and lead positive lives, rather than stay in Port-au-Prince and just barely make a living.” If $1 billion of the $11 billion pledged by international donors was put toward agriculture, the world could “watch Haiti not only feed itself, but export billions,” he said.

Haiti might finally get the type of funding Baker espouses in his political platform. After decades during which the country’s agricultural base was decimated by political instability and mismanagement, environmental destruction and foreign interference that preached the salvation of free-market economies, the idea of rebuilding the country from the soil up and giving Haiti the means to once again feed itself by transferring resources to farmers is gaining ground.

Much of the impetus comes from January’s earthquake that killed upwards of 230,000 people, mainly in the shoddy, multi-storey buildings of the congested capital. Hundreds of thousands fled the city to find shelter in their rural homelands, and are now desperate for work and food.

After decades of poorly managed foreign assistance that has seen Haitians attaining a lower standard of living than they did 30 years ago, there is hope the recent spotlight cast on Haiti’s misery can lead to an organized system of managing the aid and finally shifting development away from Port-au-Prince and to the regions where the majority live.

But then there’s the reality of a farmer like Roland Hyppolite, an engineer who also has degrees in management and agricultural development. Hyppolite moved back to his homeland of Lascahobas in Haiti’s breadbasket Central Plateau region four years ago. He was 52, and decided it was time to leave Port-au-Prince to feed his inner spirit and his country, earn a better salary than he earned as executive director of the Haitian-Canadian Chamber of Commerce and give his five children the happy rural childhood he remembers.

Hyppolite soon discovered, however, that farming in Haiti is not as easy as throwing a few seeds in the ground and watching them grow. There were few customers for his peppers, no decent roads to transport produce to market, no electricity for refrigerated storage. He had to lay off some of his staff of four after his first year. It wasn’t until he joined forces with other farmers and had the good fortune to find a Quebec-based distributor on the web, at the one Internet café in his town of 53,000, that his future grew less tenuous.

While it can be rewarding – Hyppolite estimates a successful farmer with a hectare of peppers can make $10,000 in a season on the local market, 20 times the average per capita income – roadblocks are numerous.

“You have to have courage” to be a farmer in Haiti, he said last week via cellphone, roosters crowing in the background.

If this is the experience of a former engineer with degrees from universities in Haiti, the U.S. and Puerto Rico who has some savings and land, what hope is there for the millions of destitute peasant farmers who depend on agriculture for survival? And how many Haitians who have had a taste of city life want to return to a countryside where health care and education for their children are non-existent, to toil in the fields?

Charles Henri Baker is a controversial figure in Haiti. So light skinned he appears white, he is the owner of a garment factory where 750 employees sew medical uniforms that are exported worldwide. Born in Haiti and with a degree in business administration from a Florida university, he lapses frequently into Creole during speeches as if to substantiate the Haitian roots his skin colour puts into question. He finished third in Haiti’s 2006 presidential vote, and is seen as a possible front-runner in the elections slated for November. A member of the country’s well-heeled business elite that makes up one per cent of its population but controls more than 50 per cent of its wealth, Baker’s critics accuse him being a “sweatshop industrialist” who profited from Haiti’s cheap labour base and is now pandering to the massive rural vote.

But Baker was also a successful farmer in the 1980s, and his platform of agricultural reform reflects a growing vision for Haiti’s rebirth.

“What’s essential is agrarian reform which would allow us to make peasants the masters and the managers of their own land,” Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, executive director of the Peasant Movement of Papay in the Central Plateau region, told the Toward Freedom grassroots media group in March. “Along with land we need credit, technical assistance and markets to sell our products.” Jean-Baptiste and others call for “food sovereignty” that focuses on local food production for local consumption and the protection of local markets with tariffs on food imports.

Baker uses Malawi as an example of what can happen if aid is distributed directly to farmers. Following a disastrous corn harvest in 2005, the impoverished African country needed emergency food aid to feed five million of its 13 million people. Malawi’s newly elected president vowed never again. He ignored World Bank and rich donor countries’ advice that Malawi should continue to rely on free-market economies for economic resurgence and not subsidize fertilizer or seed for its planters (even though most of the donor countries heavily subsidize their own farmers). Malawi’s farmland, like Haiti’s, had become severely depleted over the years because farmers with shrinking plots could not afford to fertilize them or let them lie fallow. Farmers and their children slowly starved to death in the bad years.

So in 2006, the New York Times reported, the government of Malawi ignored the experts and gave half the nation’s farming families coupons to buy two 50-kilogram bags of fertilizer, enough for an acre of land, for $15, about one-third the market price. They also received coupons for enough seed to plant half an acre. Corn production jumped to 2.7 million tonnes in 2006, more than double the harvest in 2005. In 2007, it was 3.4 million tonnes. Greater rainfall helped, but studies determined access to fertilizer played a large role.

Malawi went from begging to selling more corn to the World Food Program of the United Nations than any other country in southern Africa and exporting hundreds of thousands of tonnes to Zimbabwe. Food prices dropped and wages for farm labour rose.

When Baker ran a farm on land he inherited from his father in the 1980s, he said he produced 190 bags of the cereal crop sorghum per hectare because he had the money to buy fertilizer, irrigation equipment and tractors. The average production rate in Haiti at the time was 22 bags, about one-tenth his output. “Give farmers access to credit,” Baker said, and their production will triple. “The banking system is there. The government just needs to put money into the banks.” Get the money out quickly, and farmers can be self-sufficient in six months to a year, Baker predicted.

Before the earthquake, Haiti’s government earmarked seven per cent of its 2009-2010 budget for agricultural development. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggested that figure should be at least 12 per cent.

The downfall of Haiti’s agricultural base has been in the works for a century, but accelerated greatly with the onset of free-market economic theory in the 1970s and ’80s. During the United States’s 19-year occupation of Haiti beginning in 1915, the U.S. concentrated most of its trade operations in Port-au-Prince where its military was based, eroding the influence of the many ports that used to dot its northern, western and southern coasts, notes New York Times columnist Nicolai Ouroussoff. By the 1960s, dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalier had closed the other ports to concentrate his power in the capital, and the systemic neglect of the countryside, where roughly 80 per cent of the population lived, was well under way.

Haiti was still largely food self-sufficient until the 1970s, when the International Monetary Fund and wealthy donor nations began to push for open-market policies in the new global marketplace. The theory worked like this: Haiti’s production of certain staple crops, like rice, that were concentrated on smaller farms was inefficient and expensive compared to the huge operations found elsewhere. Haitian farmers should abandon their rice farms in favour of specialized exportable cash crops like coffee, mangoes and tobacco, or work at the many manufacturing jobs that would be created. They could use their riches to buy cheap imported rice and have cash left over.

“The (Jean-Claude – Baby Doc) Duvalier dictatorship embraced these policies as a means of enrichment and maintaining control,” said Bob Maguire, director of the Haiti program at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. “Subsequent democratically-elected governments in the 1990s to the present have been too weak and too dependent on international aid to resist them.” Haiti receives about $165 million annually in foreign aid, much of it used to feed its people. It is in a poor position to say no.

Haiti dropped its tariffs to some of the lowest rates in the Caribbean, and its market was quickly flooded with cheap, U.S. rice produced by highly subsidized farmers. Exports of American rice, the Washington Post noted, went from zero to 200,000 tonnes a year over two decades, making Haiti the fourth largest market for U.S. rice after Japan, Mexico and Canada. Hundreds of thousands of rice farmers no longer had a market for their produce. Starving and desperate, many flooded into Port-au-Prince with their families seeking manufacturing work that never appeared – at its peak, light industry created about 60,000 jobs in Haiti, but at least 70 per cent of those were lost after a military coup in 1991. Most of the jobs still pay low wages – averaging around $2 a day, or 40 cents an hour. Attempts by Haiti’s parliament to increase the country’s minimum wage to $5 a day recently were overruled by the business community, Charles Henri Baker among them, who argued Haiti would be unable to compete with places like the Dominican Republic, where minimum wage is $4.25 a day, Baker said.

Meanwhile, the planned exports of coffee and mangoes were hurt by overproduction in poor countries and trade barriers in rich countries. Many Haitians changed their eating habits to cheap, imported rice instead of locally grown corn, millet and rice, putting them at the mercy of price fluctuations. In 2008, rice prices surged internationally, leading to protests, riots and starvation. Today, Haiti imports about 75 per cent of its food.

In 1980, the Post reported, per capita income in Haiti was $600. Twenty years later it had dropped to $369. (It rose to about $480 by 2009).

The IMF counters that the painful transition will work out if given time. In 2000, the Post reported, IMF officials accused their opponents of “exaggerating the influence of lending organizations, oversimplifying and distorting the issues, and playing down systemic problems such as corruption, political instability and insecurity.” Haiti had an average of one government a year for 10 years after the Duvalier regime collapsed in 1986, officials noted, so no government was able to promote a long-standing economic program.

“Claims that the IMF ‘forced’ Haiti to reduce tariffs, and even to abandon agricultural production, particularly on rice, are just based on faulty information and conjecture,” said an IMF official in an email to The Gazette. The Haitian government lowered tariffs because inflation had risen to 40 per cent and people couldn’t afford food, he wrote.

“Our support for general trade liberalization … reflects the clear evidence that countries open to trade do better and grow faster than countries with more restrictive regimes.”

According to Bill Clinton, however, U.S. president during the period in which tariffs were lowered, this has not been the case in Haiti.

“It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed the people.”

Recent history has shown free-market theory does not work in many developing nations, leading to poverty and outmigration, particularly in the Caribbean, University of Toronto associate professor Melanie Newton said.

“We’ve sort of been brainwashed that having people work for $2 a day, that it will someday get better and salaries will rise. ... This model – vulture capitalism with extremely low wages – does not produce this stepping stone to a western system.” Wages stay low, and the dreams of parents that their children will be educated and find better employment die because the better jobs are never created.

“In Haiti, where rural life is valued, we have an opportunity to do things differently,” Newton said. “Subsistence farming, which has been seen as lack of civilization for much of the 20th century, has actually been – socially, environmentally and politically – much more sustainable.”

Haiti, she added, must do a better job of protecting itself, refusing low-wage labour contracts and imposing tariffs. Neighbouring Dominican Republic, for instance, maintained its rice tariffs and refused the import of donated second-hand clothes to protect its local garment trade.

Countries like Taiwan, held up as shining examples of the free-market economic system’s potential for good, “enacted aggressive programs of universal education and agrarian investment before embarking on its touted light-manufacturing phase,” Maguire notes.
Haiti is a rural country with an agrarian structure and a market of 10 million people, he said. Support decentralized investment in the agricultural sector and the rural economy will rebound. But first Haiti must be allowed to level the playing field so its farmers can compete.

“Haitian farmers merit the same kind of protection and subsidies as American and Canadian farmers,” Maguire said.

For Haiti’s agricultural renaissance to benefit from the post-earthquake exodus, aid had better come to the outlying regions soon, farmers say. Residents who have returned complain there are no jobs and little to eat, and speak of returning to the capital.

Haiti is said to have more non-governmental organizations per capita than any country in the world, a supposed blessing that has become something of a curse. NGOs filled many governmental roles, like providing health care and education, but without the overreaching framework a government normally provides to ensure an equal distribution of resources throughout the country. The resulting inability to govern was obvious in the earthquake’s aftermath, when Haiti’s government was practically invisible and NGOs took over relief efforts. Decades of international aid has also fostered a culture of dependency among many. Well-intentioned food aid is crippling local farmers unable to sell their produce.

Post-earthquake redevelopment plans unveiled in late March bring hope for the regions, promising two new regional airports, two new sea ports, more than 600 kilometres of roads and economic zones in several cities to move the focus away from Port-au-Prince.
Proponents of agricultural development acknowledge there are issues: The common trend worldwide is movement toward cities in search of employment and government services lacking in the regions. Most countries, developing or developed, have trouble attracting or retaining professionals like doctors, nurses and teachers to remote rural areas, which in turn dissuades others from settling there. Most young, educated city dwellers are not hankering to head out to the fields and wield a hoe in the blazing sun all day in locales that don’t even have electricity.

But, the proponents say, agricultural renewal can provide food security and dignified, self-sufficient livelihoods to millions who currently have neither, and form the basis for social and economic growth.

Farmer Roland Hyppolite notes the challenge for farmers is great, and while he appreciates the efforts, he has seen little of NGOs or government officials in Lascahobas, located 50 kilometres northwest of Port-au-Prince. Farmers, he said, need technical training in how to create nurseries that won’t be washed away during the four-month rainy season; they need money to buy pumps to get them through the dry season. There are few places to store their goods, be it cold rooms or warehouses to protect food from the elements and animals (Baker estimates half of Haiti’s total crop rots because of the lack), so farmers bring their produce to market at the same time, driving down prices and leaving much unsold. Although Port-au-Prince is only 50 kilometres away, getting produce there by local transport can take hours over roads that resemble dried out riverbeds.

In the Central Plateau, it’s estimated 40 per cent of children are malnourished. Many die because their parents cannot find work. Revive the agricultural base, Hyppolite says, and wealth will follow: Factories that need labourers, managers and technicians will be built to transform the food and ready it for export; schools and hospitals will be built; light industry offering decent wages can then move to the countryside.

Hyppolite has shown it can be done – he is a member of a group of six farming co-operatives made up of two to four farms each who have combined to share costs and labour and put together a large mix of products to interest foreign buyers. In one year, just one of the co-operatives produced 30,000 kilograms of yams, 9,000 kilos of potatoes, 1,000 kilos of pears, 25,000 kilos of red beans and 25,000 kilos of black beans, among other crops. Hyppolite found Brooks Pepperfire Foods based in Rigaud on the Internet, and has since opened contracts with other Canadian importers.

“I have farming in my blood,” said Hyppolite, the son of a farmer. “The choice to go into agriculture is not without challenges, especially in a country like mine. But my heart and my spirit are there.”
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