Agriculture and Haiti's Long-Term Future: An Analysis
NEWSLETTER SPRING 2010
By Beverly Bell
What would it take to transform Haiti's economy such that its role in the global economy is no longer that of providing cheap labor for sweatshops? What would it take for hunger to no longer be the norm, for the country no longer to depend on imports and hand-outs, and for Port-au-Prince's slums to no longer contain 85% of the city's residents? What would it take for the hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake to have a secure life, with income?
According to Haitian peasant organizations, at the core of the solutions is a commitment on the part of the government to support family agriculture, with policies to make the commitment a reality.
Haiti is the only country in the hemisphere where the majority is still rural. Estimates of the percentage of Haiti's citizens who remain farmers span from 60.5% (UN, 2006) to 80% (the figure used by peasant groups).
Photo: Roberto (Bear) Guerra
Despite that, food imports currently constitute 57% of what Haitians consume (World Bank, 2008). It didn't used to be that way; policy choices made it so. In the 1980s, the U.S. and international financial institutions pressured Haiti to lower tariffs on food imports, leading to a flood of cheap food with which Haitian farmers could not compete. At the same time, U.S.A.I.D. and others pressured Haiti to orient its production toward export, leaving farmers vulnerable to shifting costs of sugar and coffee on the world market.
Because of the poor state of their production and marketing as well as the lack of basic services, 88% of the rural population lives in poverty, 67% in extreme poverty (UNDP, 2004).
Things have grown worse for them since the 2008 hurricane season, when four storms battered Haiti in three weeks, destroying more than 70% of agriculture and most rural roads, bridges, and other infrastructure needed for production and marketing. At least during the earthquake, only one farming area, around Jacmel, was badly damaged.
There is a direct relationship between the state of agriculture and the earthquake's high toll in deaths, injuries, and homelessness. The quake was so destructive because more than three million people were jammed into a city meant for populations of 200,000 to 250,000- most were living in extremely precarious and overcrowded housing.
This is partly due to the demise of peasant agriculture over the past three decades, which has forced small producers to move to the capital to enter the ranks of sweatshop and informal sectors.
It is also due, in part, to the fact that government services effectively do not exist for those in the countryside. ID cards, universities, specialized health care, and much else is available exclusively, or almost exclusively, in what Haitians call the Republic of Port-au-Prince, forcing many to visit or live there to meet their needs.
"It's not houses which will rebuild Haiti, it's investing in the agriculture sector," says Rosnel Jean-Baptiste of Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Heads Together Small Peasant Farmers of Haiti).
Those interviewed for this article, including dozens of peasant farmers from five organizations as well as economists and development experts, agree that the current moment offers opportunities for secure employment for the majority, rural development, diminished hunger, and resettlement with employment of those displaced from earthquake-hit areas.
If reinforced, agriculture could help feed the nation, which is currently suffering a dire food crisis. More than 2.4 million Haitians are estimated to be food-insecure. Acute malnutrition among children under the age 5 is 9% and chronic malnutrition for that age group is 24% (World Food Programme, 2010).
Agriculture could also offer a solution for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people now residing in rural areas. In interviews with dozens of Port-au-Prince residents who are taking refuge in the provinces, most say they would stay there if they could find a way to sustain themselves.
If they could be given the land and resources necessary to begin farming, they would not need to return to city sweatshops, with their lack of living wage, job security, or health or safety protections.By investing in agriculture, and strengthening the very foundation of Haiti, Port-au-Prince could become a livable city, without its overcrowded and inhumane conditions, without more than eight out of ten people residing in slums (as suggested by UN Human Settlements Program reports).
Beverly Bell is one of the founding members of the Lambi Fund of Haiti.