Haiti Food Security Update (8/25/2009)

  • Posted on: 25 August 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Here's the good news - the first hurricane of 2009 passed on by.  The bad news is that we've got a long way to go until hurricane season is over.  The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that there will be seven to eleven named storms in the Atlantic before the end of November, with the potential for three to six hurricanes.  As we saw last year, tropical storms can wreck havoc on both crops and infrastructure.  Humanitarian responders are gearing up. 


If Haiti is hit by one or more tropical storms this season, the World Food Programme (WFP) will be responsible for leading emergency food assistance.  In addition to the food required for ongoing operations, 5,700 metric tons of food have been set aside for disaster relief – enough to supply 500,000 people with a one-month ration.  WFP has also stockpiled special, highly nutritious food for 35,000 children and pregnant and lactating women.  If there is widespread flooding, roads may be impassable.  For that reason, WFP is preparing for the worst case scenarios by dispersing high-energy biscuits (they don’t require cooking) throughout the country.


In addition to food, WFP would also be responsible for coordinating the logistics of humanitarian response.  WFP is in the process of stationing a fleet of 63 six-wheel-drive, 'go-anywhere' trucks throughout Haiti.  These trucks are available to other responders.  In addition to food, they can help get staff to where they need to be and deliver non-food items.  If the trucks can’t get there, WFP will resort to helicopters in order to get assistance to remote locations or areas where the road network has been disrupted.


Loss of lives, crop, and infrastructure in disasters is not inevitable.  The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate capacity building and to develop strategies for mitigating the impact of natural disasters.  In addition to Haiti, 18 other Caribbean governments are participating:  Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago and the Turks and Caicos Islands, Bermuda, Cayman Islands,the British Virgin Islands, Guyana, and Montserrat.


When Haiti has been affected by disasters and/or emergencies in the past, there has often been a familiar pattern.  Donors pay attention to Haiti for a while, make pledges which may or may not become commitments, and ultimately become distracted by crises elsewhere.  Times may be changing.  According to Jean Claude Fignole, director of ActionAid Haiti, "International aid cooperation has actually not decreased to Haiti this year…In fact a slight, marginal increase to 50 billion gourdes (approximately US$1.25 billion) is projected for the 2010 budget.”


Fignole attributed the international attention largely to the naming of former US President Bill Clinton as UN special envoy to Haiti.  If Bill can ensure that the $324 million in pledges made at the Haiti Donors Conference translate into actual commitments, he will have done Haiti an enormous service.  This is especially important as remittances from Haitians abroad (20% of Haiti's GDP) have slowed since last year as a result of the global financial crisis.


Overall, Haiti has made progress on food security in Haiti. According to Haitian government figures, agricultural production rose by 25 per cent in the 2008 spring planting season compared to 2009. The number of food insecure people fell from 2.4 million in April 2008 to 1.9 million in June 2009.  FAO experts said NGO, government and UN schemes to rehabilitate the country's irrigation channels and roads following last year’s flooding have also helped to increase agricultural production. But even if we make it through the hurricane season without a single hurricane strike, the food security situation is still quite serious.  In a country with so much potential two million hungry, is not acceptable.


Jonathan Katz of the Miami Herald notes that the most vulnerable live in remote villages like Mabriyole, a collection of shacks in the Baie d'Orange region.  Baie d’Orange received a lot of press about the extent of malnutriton there – but by no means is this the only community where food insecurity is a major issue.  According to  WFP,  there are many places throughout the country in a similar situation and all of them are vulnerable.


Katz also writes that in Mabriyole, the harvest of beans, corn and sweet potatoes is coming soon.  WFP stopped distributing food here in June to avoid undercutting local farmers, though food-for-work programs and distributions at summer camps have continued elsewhere in the country.  The country needs networks of people who can monitor areas like Baie d'Orange and Mabriyole for signs of crisis to prevent deadly delays like last year's.  He laments there is nothing like that in place.


Charles Arthur, director of the Haiti Support Group, believes now is the time for the Haitian government to implement "a concerted program to assist local farmers to produce more food for the domestic market.  In other words, helping Haitians to feed themselves.  In emergencies, people often ask where they should send canned goods, which is good-hearted but highly ineffective.  The United States and other donors do something similar by sending food assistance in the form of excess agricultural commodities, a donor’s version of canned goods.


On that note, the new Ambassador of the United States to Haiti, Ambassador Kenneth H. Merten, arrived in Port-au-Prince on August 24, 2009.  He said, "Relations between Haiti and the United States should be based on three ideas: respect, partnership and responsibility…This means the United States should always fulfill commitments we have made to Haiti.  It also means the Haitian Government must do all it can to meet its own goals of development and good governance.”  Amen.


The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is takng steps to help Haitian farmers acquire the seeds and equipment they need to produce their own food.  For example, FAO recently launched a $10.2 million scheme to distribute and multiply seeds in Haiti.  Requested by the Haitian government, financed by a loan from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and implemented by FAO, the program was introduced to combat high food prices.  About 250,000 farmers will receive adapted quality seeds.


Apart from beans, a Haitian staple crop, the project includes maize and sorghum as well as cassava, sweet potato and banana plants.  The farmers are also to receive basic tools and advice or training via written materials and  radio broadcasts on best cultivation techniques.  The program initially covers three planting seasons in Haiti - winter 2008 and spring and summer 2009 - and has seed multiplication partners in all of the country's 10 administrative departments, ranging from farmers associations in hard-to-reach rural areas to a handful of larger agro-businesses.


According to the UK Guardian, Haitian government officials have launched an intense push to avoid the worst of the coming storms.  Town and village councils in the southern Nippes region have drawn up evacuation plans and alarm systems.  Sadly, most of the town defense teams do not even have radios, let alone cars, to move people to higher ground.  The Guardian notes that a third of Gonaives, even now, is in ruins.  Gary Dupiton, the town engineer, thinks it will take five years to restore the town completely, provided it does not flood again...a big if indeed.  Dupiton has spent the last few months overseeing a project to widen the La Quinte river, the biggest of several in the area, so that it does not flood again.


You likely know Partners in Health (PIH) for their ground breaking work on HIV/AIDS, TB, and community health.  With their local partner, Zanmi Agrikole (Partners in Agriculture), PIH is also doing good work to improve agricultural productivity and reverse environmental damage.  Why is a health organization involved in environmental preservation?  PIH knows that the environmental degradation results in less food, less viable livelihoods, more malnutrition, and more disease.


PIH worked with a group of MIT students and professors to develop charcoal presses that can compact carbonized organic waste, including bagasse (the waste product that remains after sugar is extracted from the cane) and corn cobs, into charcoal briquettes.  They distributed fifty presses in Corporant and taught families how to make charcoal from farm waste.  At the community level, it made available an alternative fuel source and created income generation opportunities for the families.


PIH distributed more than 20,000 fruit tree saplings last year and educated communities about deforestation.  They also created composting latrines where none existed before, an inexpensive source of fertilizer.  SELF (the Solar Electric Light Fund) also installed solar panels in two clinics, both of which will eventually be powered entirely by solar energy.


Food for the Poor has built 24 fishing villages in Haiti over the past two years, providing them with coolers and freezers, locking storage sheds, fishing tackle and safety equipment.  Doing so cost about $60,000 per village.  In return, participating fishermen agreed to contribute a minimum of five percent of their catch to help feed others in their communities.


Oxfam is also working with Haitian farmers to plant avocado and mango trees, which prevent erosion while bringing in income.  They are also helping farmers to shore up ravines with hedges and sandbags.  Also, USAID began a $1.2 million training program to increase cocoa production in the Northern and Grand'Anse departments.  4,200 farmers will participate in the program, which will run through July 2010.


We'll continue to keep an eye on the food security situation in Haiti...and on hurricanes.


Thanks for reading.


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