Frequent natural disasters devastate farmers, limit food supply in Haiti

Natural disasters are frequent in Haiti, and many peasant farmers say they must start over after each one. They complain that foreign aid is not reaching them and government initiatives are misguided. Some are migrating to cities, reducing food production nationwide.

By Rosenie Mont-Gerard, Reporter, Global Press Institute Haiti News Desk

JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Juste Jean Fenel, 33, is a farmer from Despay, a small community in the mountains surrounding Jérémie, a town in southwestern Haiti. He says that frequent natural disasters here affect the whole community.

“After a natural disaster,” he says, “kids stop going to school, the market is closed, and the peasant associations do not meet.”

After a hurricane or flood, it is especially difficult for peasant farmers to recover, Fenel says.

Clad in a gray T-shirt and white pants, Fenel wears black rubber boots to trudge through the mud and rainwater. The boots are necessary, he says, because of the storms that hit the area often.

And when they do, it takes three to six months for peasant farmers like him to recover, he says. And even after that recovery period, it is difficult to obtain the seeds, necessary tools and money to rebuild their farms.

“After every natural disaster, I lose animals, and my fields are destroyed,” says Fenel, this day donning a blue shirt and beige shorts and holding a phone battery in his hand.

His black boots lie to the side, ready for the next storm or flood.

Haitian leader showing soil conservation work

Farmer leader in Maissade, Haiti showing soil conservation work undertaken by internally displaced people with earthquake donations made to Groundswell International.

In Haiti, frequent natural disasters destroy the crops of peasant farmers, who have no reserves or savings to start over. Unable to take care of their families, some farmers are migrating to cities for increased employment opportunities, which reduces the local food supply. The government has implemented various initiatives, but they draw criticism for being out of touch with the people’s needs. Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations are working with peasant farmers in their communities to help them re-establish their farming and prevent devastation after future natural disasters.

Haiti’s economy relies primarily on agriculture, which employs two-thirds of the workforce, according to a 2011 World Bank report. This dependency on agriculture and the frequency of natural disasters make a developing country like Haiti especially susceptible to climate change.

Peasant farmers without savings – many of whom are illiterate – cultivate 75 percent of arable land in Haiti, according to agronomists and nongovernmental employees during a recent community analysis of Despay. They consume what they produce in order to survive. So when natural disasters hit, they are left with nothing.

In 2011, Haiti counted 16 storms and nine hurricanes, according to the Direction de la Protection Civile under the government’s Ministère de l’Intérieur. During the past five years, 3.6 million people became victims of natural disasters. The most notable ones were hurricanes Dean and Noel in 2007, hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike in 2008, and Hurricane Tomas and the earthquake in 2010. In June 2011, heavy flooding caused major damage.

Lyvia, a peasant farmer, sells the fruit she grows in Caracolie, a section of Jérémie.

“I sell avocados, grapefruit and bananas,” she says.

Natural disasters increase the cost of growing the fruit.

“They are expensive because when a hurricane hits, it destroys the fruit trees,” she says.

Most peasant farmers can’t afford to have reserves. They work hard, but they mostly produce what they need to eat. So when a natural disaster hits, they lose everything and have to start all over. But most can’t afford to do this.

Rosane, another peasant farmer, says that she still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Tomas, which struck Haiti in 2010.

“Whatever I had in terms of land and animals, I lost,” she says. “I have no hope at all.”

Clerelia Cadet, a small-scale farmer, shares a similar story.

“I lost my entire bean crop, and what I planted now does not even want to grow,” Cadet says.

Farmers selecting seed at a community-run seed bank PDL helped to start.

Since the 2010 earthquake, Groundswell and PDL have helped communities establish a number of community-led seed banks like this one. Peasants reproduce their own local seeds, rather than distribute genetically modified ones.

Various organizations have given out seeds, but farmers like Cadet say they refuse them because they are genetically modified. Using genetically modified seeds would mean they would have to purchase seeds every planting season, which would cost them more money in the long run. Cadet says they prefer to wait for their organic seeds to recover.

Many peasant farmers still hope that help might come, says Lena Pascal, a peasant farmer from the small town of Dame Marie. But she’s not optimistic.

“Here they forget us, with all the aid Haiti supposedly is getting,” Pascal says. “We never see any of it.” 

As a result, the peasant farmers say they suffer from hunger, can’t pay their bills, can’t obtain medical care and can’t afford to send their children to school.

“I remember the hurricane that happened after the earthquake,” says farmer Nissage Philistin, who has just come in from his field around 4 p.m. “That put me into a lot of difficulty. I could not pay the school fees for my kids, nor was I able to pay for any medical expenses for my family.”

He says it changed his life forever.

“Hurricane Tomas has marked me for the rest of my life,” he says.

Unable to support themselves through farming, some families have decided to migrate to cities.

Junior Rigaud works in Jérémie for Terre des homes, an organization that aims to improve the living conditions of disadvantaged children. He says there are several reasons why people come down from the mountains to live in the cities, but economics tops the list.

“First of all, it is for economic reasons,” he says. “The farmer who works the land realizes that what he does is not enough to cover his basic needs. So he leaves the countryside to move to the city.”

As these former farmers pursue other job opportunities in the cities, food production suffers, which has negative consequences for the population at large.

“Every farmer presents a lifeline for a number of families,” farmer Cherry Guillio says. “They give life. They play a role in people staying healthy. When they do not work, there is no food. And when they leave, the people suffer from hunger.”  

There are a few government initiatives directed at the agricultural sector. But Lorreus Jean Loussier, an agricultural technician who works closely with farmers, says the existing initiatives are misguided.

“The state makes an effort by putting an office for agricultural affairs in every county,” he says. “But they really don’t impact the countryside because they are located in the county seat, which is a town. So it does not touch the sector it should impact, and the needs of the farmers are still there. The state needs to think about this some more.”

Ismack Salomon, a community leader in the town of Dame Marie, agrees that the government must do more to help the farmers.

“The state needs to help the peasantry so they can make a living in the country and do not have to migrate to the cities,” Salomon says.

To reduce the repeated and devastating effect of natural disasters on agriculture, Haiti must integrate adaptation measures into development planning, according to the World Bank report. The report recommends measures such as offering local farmers guidance and tools to engage in sustainable practices, launching reforestation initiatives and promoting livelihood diversification.

Some nongovernmental organizations are doing just this.

Lutheran World Federation provides farmers in Despay with seeds and animals, such as goats and chickens, says Paul Macena, who works for the federation. It also built a road in the region and has offered trainings to local farmers on how to improve planting techniques, animal husbandry practices and disaster mitigation strategies.

The farmers in the area are beginning to put this training into practice, Macena says. Slowly, the community is beginning to see a change.

Fenel says that he is a beneficiary of the foundation as a member of the Fondation de la Nouvelle Grand’Anse, which receives financial and technical assistance from Lutheran World Federation. The foundation then gives farmers such as Fenel technical assistance with their crops as well as pigs to raise.

Editor’s note: Some sources have declined to give their last names because of Haiti’s history of political violence.

(c) Global Press Institute 2012. This article was originally published on the Global Press Institute’s website on June 11, 2012. You can read the original article and find more great international news coverage at http://www.globalpressinstitute.org

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