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Haiti’s Farms Sow Hope for Rebuilding

BY Talea Miller  February 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

Haiti has struggled with the debate over the benefits of agricultural aid over food aid; FAO image

In a bid to increase food stability and employment among the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have fled to the countryside following last month’s devastating earthquake, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is calling for international donors to invest $700 million in Haiti’s struggling agriculture sector.

The program, designed by Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Development, is scheduled to last 18 months. It is already racing against the clock as the planting season that yields 60 percent of the country’s crops begins in March.

About $32 million would go to purchase of seeds, tools and fertilizers for farmers to use immediately, according to Alex Jones, FAO emergencies response manager in Haiti.

“If we miss [the planting season], people will be dependent on food aid for the rest of the year,” Jones said. The group is trying to provide better-quality supplies and seed than the farmers normally have in order to improve the production capacity.

“There is not a lot of farmland in Haiti, but what we can do is increase the productivity of that land,” said Jones. “About half a million people have left Port-au-Prince going to areas where they came from or places where they have family members, but of course all those people are putting a lot of stress on the countryside.”

Much of the landscape in Haiti is steep and rocky, and while it is still used by resourceful farmers, the areas that are flat, irrigated and able to produce large yields are limited.

Deforestation, erosion and failure to rotate crops have also degraded much of Haiti’s agricultural land over generations. Farmers make up about 60 percent of Haiti’s population, but agriculture accounts for just 27 percent of the poor nation’s GDP, according to the most recent State Department data. Even before the quake, more than 75 percent of the country’s food was imported.

“Haiti will never be food self sufficient and there is no point in trying to make it so,” said Alain de Janvry, a professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Berkley. “But agriculture should provide more income for many more people.”

“[Haiti's] agriculture has the potential to produce high-value crops for the U.S. market — tropical fruits, vegetables. That potential has not been captured,” said de Janvry, who advised the country to produce some staples for national consumption, while growing cash crops to help finance importation of land-heavy crops, such as rice.

It is cheaper for Haiti to buy rice from the United States than to produce it locally because of subsidies and trade patterns, the FAO’s Jones said. But Haiti’s dependence on imports has left it in a precarious situation in the past, including in 2008, when global shortages caused rice prices to more than double, sparking riots in the streets.

In the wake of the earthquake crisis, food aid has poured into the country, and there are new concerns that the influx of free staples is bringing down food prices, hitting Haitian farmers in desperate need of resources.

President Rene Preval, who was an agronomist before going into politics, told the NewsHour’s Ray Suarez in January that food aid could hamper efforts at economic recovery.

“We cannot continue to rely on giving food to the population that comes from abroad, because we’re competing against our own national agriculture,” he said. “What has to happen right away is to create labor-intensive jobs to give money to the population to buy national products.”

Jones said FAO has been monitoring the situation to make sure food aid does not depress the market. They have not seen major shifts yet.

“It is a delicate balance, but the food aid is absolutely needed,” he said.

Keith Moore, associate director of the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management program at Virginia Tech, said food support will continue to be necessary in Haiti. But he believes that assistance should be given to farmers in the countryside so that they can be factored in as a source of that food aid, if the lands are cultivated in a sustainable way and farmers are educated how to expand their yields without exhausting the land.

“We have this problem of a project mentality that we can go in, and in two or three years, transform the thing if we just do it right. That is wrong-headed. It just doesn’t happen,” said Moore. “Haiti could be highly productive … but it’s going to take 30 or 40 years to reach that.”