Planting Season Puts Focus on Food Security in Haiti
As Haitian farmers struggle to prepare for the spring planting season starting in March, rebuilding agriculture in the impoverished, earthquake-devastated country will need a broad range of support from Canada and other countries, with funding being key.
Alexander Jones, Haiti Emergency Response Manager with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said that for the moment, the focus is on immediate needs such as erecting emergency shelters, latrines, and inputs for the farming season.
“There is planning for long-term reconstruction but no activities yet. Lack of funding for agriculture is the single major constraint to activities,” Mr. Jones said in an interview from Haiti this week.
The Agriculture Cluster—82 NGOs and U.N. agencies led by the FAO in Haiti—has to date received only 8 percent of its requested funding, he said.
“For the first season we’re struggling. We’re really working hard to get more and better seeds in for planting. Seeds, fertilizer, and tools are really critical,” he said.
There will be a second planting season from August to the beginning of September, but the first season, from March until the beginning of April, produces about 60 percent of the annual crop.
The estimated half a million people who have migrated or returned to the countryside from the ravaged capital, Port-au-Prince, have put a further strain on these very poor areas, said Mr. Jones.
Some NGO surveys report that in the affected areas family sizes have grown from six to 10 or 11 people.
Even prior to the Jan. 12 earthquake, about 60 percent of employed Haitians worked in agriculture, but the low-income sector produced less than 30 percent of the GDP.
Moreover, instead of storing their seeds, Haitian farmers tend to sell their crops and then buy seed for the planting season. “So they’re very vulnerable to the breakdown of the markets and loss of buying power. If they’ve spent their money on supporting food for their relatives, they no longer have the resources available to buy seeds. Then planting will decline. There will be less planted and less yield.”
The immediate concern is to plant the first season, to relieve reliance on food aid. Longer-term reconstruction will require water harvesting, erosion prevention, tree replanting, use of cover crops, along with other conservation and soil management activities.
“[Haiti] used to be a very rich country. It used to be self-sufficient in food, but because of rather poor management practices it’s now a bit of a wasteland,” Mr. Jones said.
With scarce agricultural land and farmers already farming some very steep mountain slopes, “there’s no possibility of bringing new land under cultivation. It’s got to be better management of the existing land.”
Marco Camagni, Country Programme Manager for Haiti with the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), went to the region the third week after the massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake.
He worked on the border between Haiti and the Dominion Republic, since only emergency relief agencies were then allowed in the country.
Speaking from IFAD headquarters in Rome on Wednesday, Mr. Camagni said except for the epicentre area in the southwestern part of Haiti, about 100 kilometres from Port-au-Prince, most of the rural areas were not greatly affected by the earthquake.
They suffered damage to infrastructure, houses, water supply systems, irrigation canals, and roads, and farmers lost seeds, tools, and livestock. However, the big impact came from migration from the capital, putting “lots of pressure on the availability of food, housing, and other basic services, and need for employment for those people.”
IFAD ‘s short-term response plan focuses on distributing seeds and tools for the planting season, helping farmer organizations rebuild rural infrastructure, and creating jobs in key areas including watershed and natural resource management.
IFAD also works in other parts of Haiti to support development in food security, rural employment, rural finance, and community-based projects.
Even before the quake, Haiti imported about 60 percent of its food, including 80 percent of its rice, a key staple in the country, Mr. Camagni said.
“That’s why we insist so much on the importance of food security, boosting production in the county. It’s very important to restore the capacity of the country to produce and increasingly become less dependent on imports, absolutely.”
‘Economic Growth Through Agricultural Growth’
Sylvain Charlebois, associate director of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina, noted that “there is great potential to make economic growth through agricultural growth in Haiti.”
Years ago Haiti was a powerhouse in terms of agricultural commodities, he said. “For years they were able to grow them quickly and had a captive market, but now, because of globalization, Haiti has fallen behind any other nation.”
Developed nations need to help Haiti through sharing technologies and innovation, such as teaching farmers how to use fertilizers properly, grow crops that can cope with the country’s harsh soil and climate, and achieve strong and profitable yields using sustainable farming practices, said Mr. Charlebois.
Other important areas include better governance to ensure law and order, and keeping farm subsidies and tariffs on imports under control, he said. For example, farmers cannot produce rice competitively against cheap imported rice.
IFAD is also a financial institution that lends to governments. Like the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and others, it is developing a mechanism to cancel all debt owed by Haiti, said Mr. Camagni. Meanwhile, all financial aid IFAD gives Haiti is now on a grant basis.
“It’s not just a question of money,” said Mr. Jones, noting that a key source of primary support will be Haiti’s “very strong and very dynamic diaspora in Canada, the U.S., and a few other countries.”
Canada is home to some 100,000 Canadians with roots in Haiti, with Montreal having the country’s largest Canadian-Haitian community.
“Knowledge, support, people willing to come back for a certain amount of time to work here, I think that’s going to be critical, and it’s a big asset that Haiti has,” Mr. Jones said.