Recovery and Agriculture in Haiti

  • Posted on: 11 September 2010
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming elections, one hopes that promoting agriculture and rehabilitating the environment will be high priorities for the next administration.  Countries that import the majority of their food staples, as Haiti does, are vulnerable to price shocks when international food prices increase.  Rural development depends in large part upon making agriculture viable again.  This will require tackling environmental degradation, improving disaster preparedness, upgrading infrastructure and resolving long simmering land tenure issues. These challenges are difficult but not insurmountable.


Agriculture in Haiti is linked to both oppression and freedom.  Under French colonization, slave labor yielded both enormous profits and great suffering.  In fact, Haiti’s agricultural productivity made it more valuable than all thirteen American colonies combined.  During and after the struggle for independence, the vast majority of plantations were destroyed.  After the revolution, a great scattering ensued.  The majority of Haitians became subsistence farmers.  Agriculture provided the means to be self-sufficient.


For the audacity of not submitting to slavery, Haiti was cut off from international markets by the United States and France, the first but certainly not the last embargo it would endure.  However, no country can exist in isolation forever.  In order to attain recognition as an independent country, Haiti was forced to pay the French 150 million French francs (about $21 billion today) for “economic losses” incurred during the revolution.  Independent Haiti’s first major export became the wood from its forests, cut in order to pay its former colonizer for the privilege of formal recognition.  This debt has yet to be repayed by France, either with resources or solidarity.


Haiti was once the world’s largest exporter of coffee.  There are different theories as to what caused the decline, but most would agree that governmental mismanagement, deforestation, and decreased competitiveness in the face of a growing number of coffee producing countries were factors.  Today, coffee is a niche export but there is room for growth.  Never tried Haitian coffee?  Try ordering through Singing Rooster, which invests profits back into Haitian coffee growing communities.


Haiti once exported large amounts of cane sugar, but could not withstand increasing international competition and a shift to cheaper forms such as corn fructose.  Sugar is now used primarily for domestic consumption and rum.  In areas with ample water, cane has potential to be cultivated as a bio-fuel.  Of all potential biofuels available to Haiti, Jatropha continues to receive the most attention.  The government is interested in biofuels but as of yet, I have not seen a formal policy on them.


Production of mangos and cacao could also be expanded.  Coca Cola, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and Technoserve launched an initiative to support 25,000 mango farmers in northern Haiti.  Click here for a video about Haitian mangos (in Kreyol).  Here is another video concerning Agropak, a mango packing facility in the north.  Excellent scotch bonnet peppers are grown in southern Haiti.  Vanilla, sisal, and vetiver for essential oils are also produced.  Take a look at this video (part 1 and part 2) to see how vetiver, a potentially lucrative crop, is harvested in Haiti.  The Haitian Ministry of Agriculture also has an online series of videos concerning other agricultural activities such as honey production and fisheries.


Today, Haiti’s agricultural sector employs over two thirds of the country’s workforce but accounts for only 25 percent of its GDP.  The decline in exports has been accompanied by an increase in importation of food staples.  Population pressure, erosion from deforestation, vulnerability to natural disasters, misguided government policies, lack of investment, and failure to innovate have taken a toll.  In addition, a lack of clarity and transparency over who (rightfully) owns property continues to cause tension and occasionally conflict.  Under the Napoleanic land system, property is divided amongst the male heirs of each family, which is less than ideal when the population is expanding but arable land is not.  Today, Haitians in the countryside grow their crops much as their ancestors did albeit under circumstances that become more challenging every year.


American engagement has at times undermined Haitian agriculture.  Under the Clinton Administration, Haiti was pressured into opening its doors wide open to foreign rice imports.  Many exporting countries, like the United States, heavily subsidize agriculture, resulting in artificially low prices that Haiti could not possibly compete with.  As Haiti became flooded with foreign rice, its own production capacity plummeted.  Haiti became dependent on food imports and at the mercy of fluctuations in international food prices.


UN Special Envoy Clinton has acknowledged the gravity of the mistake, noting “…it wasn't the right thing to do.  We should have helped them be self-sufficient in agriculture."  Clinton has been trying to make up for past mistakes by emphasizing the importance of agriculture.  During a visit to Leogane, he visited the Darbonne sugar mill, which is a public/private partnership between the Haitian government and BioTek, a biofuels distribution company.  The Darbonne plant is intended to become a source of green energy, capable of producing up to 20 megawatts of electricity, and a model for future facilities elsewhere in Haiti. T he CEO of BioTek, Regine Simon Barjon, is himself a Haitian American.


Along with Prime Minister Bellerive, Special Envoy Clinton co-chairs the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), which approves and coordinates major projects.  After a long wait, the IHRC approved $1.6 billion dollars worth of projects on August 6th.  This included $200 million in funding for agricultural development programs.  A brief description of agricultural objectives hopes to achieve with this funding is available here.


Livestock is another important element of agriculture.  In Haiti, animals are the closest thing to a bank account that many of the rural poor will ever have.  Here again, American engagement has at times been misguided.  During the 1980s, the United States supported an eradication campaign of Haiti’s Kreyol pig population due to concerns about swine flu.  Most, but not all, Kreyol pigs were slaughtered.  The American equivalent would be for someone to take your ATM card and wipe out your savings.  Kreyol pig stocks have rebounded thanks to breeding  of the survivors, complemented with imports from other Caribbean countries.


Milk, mostly in powdered form, is a major import to Haiti and an expensive one at that.  In a country without a tradition of organized dairy cooperatives, Let Agogo (Milk to Go) has been a notable success for creating jobs and improving access to milk. Take a look at this VETERIMED video (part 1 and part 2) to learn more about Let Agogo's efforts to expand throughout Haiti.  Here is another video (in Kreyol) about distribution of Let Agogo milk to various schools.


What is the status of agriculture and food security in Haiti seven months after the earthquake?  According to the USAID supported Famine Early Warning System (FEWS-NET), the 2010 spring rainy season began in April/May, about four to six weeks later than normal.  Rains were heavy but well-distributed.  Food crop output is expected to be good but slightly lower than last year.  The price of most food staples are back to pre-earthquake levels with the exception of corn.  Rice has been planted in irrigated parts of the Artibonite, the rural areas outside of Les Cayes, and in parts of the northeast.  Most corn-producing areas are expecting a very good harvest.  There are good supplies of grain (corn, rice, millet), beans, roots and tubers and fruits, particularly mangos, from the North, the Artibonite, and the Central Plateau.  FEWS-NET reports this is one of the factors resulting in a downward movement of prices.  In addition, FAO and WFP report that in Port au Prince, the prices of imported rice at the beginning of August were 25 percent lower than in February 2010.


Looking ahead through December, FEWS-NET notes that food security conditions in most departments are improving.  Regional markets are well-stocked with crops and food prices should continue trending downwards due to the spring harvest and reasonable market prices for grain.  Farm workers in rural areas with good crop production potential, such as the Les Cayes plain, the Artibonite Valley, and the Northern Plains will benefit from harvesting and planting activities in these areas in October/December.  Unfortunately, the harvest is likely to be poor in the isolated and drought prone northwest.


Cash for work programs continue to be the primary source of income for a large segment of the population in Port au Prince.  These programs include the clearing of rubble, the cleaning of ditches, and the collection of refuse.   Food security in Port au Prince should continue to be stable due to continued cash for work programs, improved functioning of the ports, normalizing of imports, and better food availability of local crops in markets.  However, there are two wildcard factors.  First, Port au Prince and many other parts of the country are vulnerable to damage from tropical storms.  These storms can take a significant toll on agricultural livelihoods.  During the 2008 hurricane season, Haiti lost more than 10% of its crops and damages to the already rough road network limited ability to move agricultural products to regional markets.  This resulted in isolation and documented increases in malnutrition for some mountainous, isolated areas such as Baie d’Orange.  Baie received a lot of media coverage at but it was by no means the only community struggling with increasing food insecurity.  Earlier this year, the FAO finalized its contingency plan for the hurricane season in coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Rural Development (MARNDR).  As part of this plan, seed stock has been prepositioned in chronically vulnerable areas, and distribution plans are in place.  The second factor is instability that may come with the upcoming elections.  With Wyclef out of the picture, run-offs are practically guaranteed.  Conflict would set back cash for work programs, impede the private sector, and affect access to markets.


While there are signs of improvement, it is important to keep in mind that WFP estimates more than 2.4 million Haitians to be food-insecure.  It would not take much to cause a major setback.  For more information on food security in Haiti, take a look at the Haiti Food Security Emergency Tool which aggregates data from a variety of sources and presents it in an interactive map form.  Subjects covered include useable roads, crop calendars, land use, livelihood zones and damage information.


What is the future of agriculture in Haiti?  Progress will depend in part upon strengthening MARNDR, which is responsible for setting plans, creating strategies, and developing partnerships for the promotion of agriculture.  MARNDR may lack capacity but it has many partners who do not.  Given the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake, the United Nations called for the use of the Cluster Approach which is being used in numerous disaster and conflict affected countries throughout the world.   One of the clusters, under MARNDR and FAO leadership, is focused on agriculture.  Up to 82 NGOs and UN agencies participated in the agriculture cluster in the aftermath of the earthquake.  While by no means the most glamorous sector, the majority of Haitians earn their livings from agriculture, making it central to recovery efforts.


Starting with regional partnerships, the Dominican Republic has expressed a willingness to collaborate with Haiti in the areas of education and agriculture.  During a high level stakeholder meeting in Punta Cana on June 2nd, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, Haitian Minister of Agriculture Joanas Gué, and Dominican Minister of Agriculture Salvador Jiménez participated in a meeting during which the Haitian delegation presented its National Agricultural Investment Plan (NAIP) for agriculture.   The development of the NAIP was carried out with the support of the FAO, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank and the United States.  The United States, Brazil, Canada, France, Spain, FAO, Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), IDB, World Bank, the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD), and representatives of the Haitian private sector and civil society all endorsed the plan.  The Haitian government committed to increasing support from its national budget for agriculture and food security.  This is key given that FAO estimates one dollar invested in agriculture will produce $40 to $60 worth of food.


The NAIP revolves around three objectives: (1) Developing rural infrastructure, including watersheds; (2) improving production and developing competitive value chains; and (3) strengthening agricultural services and institutions.  MARDNR and its partners have also expressed interest in: (1) repair of the quake-damaged Darbonne sugar refinery near Léogane; (2) reforestation; (3) rebuilding and reinforcing collapsed riverbanks and damaged irrigation channels; (4) rehabilitation of 600 kilometers of feeder roads so that crops can reach regional markets; (5) acquiring thousands of tons of cereal, pulses and vegetable seeds; (6) distributing tools and fertilizers; (7) re-launching a program to encourage planting of sweet potatos in all ten of Haiti’s departments; and (8) building storage facilities around the country to stock food and grain throughout the hurricane season.  The NAIP calls for $790 million and the Haitian government has committed to financing $14 million of it with support from the private sector.  The United States  committed $25.9 million to support the NAIP in 2010 and will provide additional support in 2011.


Complementing these actions, the World Bank administered Global Agriculture and Food Security Program has awarded Haiti $35 million to raise the productivity of smallholder farmers through improved access to agricultural inputs, technology, and supply chains.  Donors to the fund include the United States, Canada, Spain, South Korea and the Gates Foundation.  The World Bank states that the fund is designed to leverage the benefits of multilateral institutions and will provide a flexible source of medium and long-term financing for public and private projects that improve food security.


Haiti can learn from the experiences of Brazil, a regional leader that is already heavily involved in the country.  A recent article in the Economist covers the fundamental transformation of the Brazilian agricultural system, which despite its tropical climate and nutrient poor soils, has gone from being a net importer of food to a major grain exporter.  Granted that Brazil has many advantages that Haiti does not have such as spare land, ample water, and strong governmental capacity.  However, Haiti might take a page from Brazil's book by adopting a “systems approach” where environmental, livestock, and agricultural interventions reinforce each other.  This transformation would not have been possible without a willingness to innovate. Brazil developed novel methods for making dry regions fit for farming, cross bred grasses and animals suitable for its environment, and developed crops that would thrive in its climate.  This includes adopting and improving African grasses and Indian cattle.  Most soyabean production takes place in temperate climate, but Brazil turned it into a tropical crop that could grow well in acidic soils. Also of interest, Brazil has become the second larger user of genetically modified crops after the United States.  Whether or not MARNDR supports genetically modified crops, it will need to be creative in making land arable in dry parts of the country.


The Cubans can also be a good resource.  Agriculture is not just for the countryside.  Cuba has pioneered urban gardening in Havana and other cities.  Here is a video which covers Havana's urban gardens.  Cuba has also been helping Haiti to develop fisheries, a practice which has not really taken off in Haiti but which has much potential due to the need for cheap protein and the over-fishing of coastal areas.


For too long, food assistance provided by the United States has been more about charity than solidarity – providing our agricultural surplus without helping farmers to improve their own agricultural productivity.  Recognizing a need to help partner countries feed themselves, the Obama administration has created the Global Health and Food Security Initiative (GHSFI).  GHSFI, a joint venture between the State Department and USAID, in coordination with other U.S. agencies and international donors, to refocus USG investments in nutrition, agriculture, and food security.  Haiti has been selected as a focus country, meaning that the United States is providing increased levels of funding and technical assistance.


Also of interest, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided $47.5 million to the WFP and Mercy Corps to promote food security.  Through Mercy Corps, up to 100,000 households will receive food vouchers worth $40 each.  Each voucher is enough to purchase 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of rice, 88 pounds (40 kilograms) of red beans and one gallon (3.8 litres) of cooking oil.  The vouchers will be honored by over 135 vendors in the Central Plateau and the Artibonite, which will stimulate local markets. The WFP component will allow it to expand cash for work programming to 140,000 participants by the end of the year.  Workers will be paid with a mix of food and cash to clean debris, repair irrigation canals, and build drainage.  The WFP has already been experimenting with locally purchase corn and other crops to support feeding programs while bolstering the rural economy.


A study after this year's earthquake found that much of the emergency seed aid provided was not actually targeted to emergency needs.  The report concludes that seed aid, when poorly-designed, could actually harm farmers or depress local markets, hampering recovery from emergencies.  The study identified access to new crop varieties as being of greater importance.  The study was funded by USAID and carried out by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), FAO, and MARNDR.


As far as international organizations go, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has encouraged Dominican/Haitian collaboration by providing a series of loans and grants, totaling $28 million, to create agricultural jobs in the border region, with an emphasis on coffee and bananas.  IFAD is currently reviewing its five year strategy and intends to identify opportunities to improve access to credit, markets, tools and training in Haiti.  IFAD had previously invested over 5 million to build irrigation systems in Northern Haiti.  In Haitian communities where irrigation exists, one notices a remarkable difference in the quality of crops.


The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is working with MARNDR, other UN agencies, and NGOs to address environmental degradation which will complement efforts to promote agriculture by controlling erosion, increasing farmland productivity, and developing clean energy alternatives.  Sadly, Haiti remains a country where most depend upon wood charcoal for their cooking needs.  UNEP is helping to establish an Improved Stoves Network to promote the use of more fuel efficient stoves, but over the long run, Haiti needs clean energy sources that are accesible and affordable.


There are also some very good NGOs promoting agriculture in Haiti.  The Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (ORE), based outside of Les Cayes, promotes access to improved seeds, high value fruit crops, vegetables, and seldom planted but very useful plants such as bamboo.  In Haiti, farming is difficult under the best of circumstances but especially hard when sick.  For that reason, ORE is also involved in establishing drinking water systems.


Floresta is a faith based environmental organization that has been active in Haiti since 1997.  Floresta provides training on innovative agricultural techniques, reforestation, creates micro-credit programs so that farmers have access to capital, and marketing assistance for agricultural products.  Floresta primarily works in southern Haiti but increaasingly along the Dominican border as well.


The Lambi Fund helps create and finance Farmer Credit Funds in the Artibonite, South, West, and Northwest so that peasant groups can plant improved crops.  These groups can take on innovations (and risk) together that they might not be willing to undertake individually.  In addition, the Lambi Fund supports reforestation efforts, clean water projects, pig and goat breeding programs, as well as creation of grain and sugar cane mills.  Lambi Fund takes great pains to ensure women are included and empowered in the programming it supports.


Oxfam is another NGO active in the agriculture sector.   Oxfam provides tools, seeds, and fertilizers to vulnerable farmers as well as agricultural training on crop production and livestock management, often in collaboration with other NGOs like IICA and VETERIMED.  Oxfam also clears and rehabilitates irrigation systems.


The decline of the Haitian agricultural system has been accompanied by growing food insecurity, malnutrition, urbanization, and political instability.  It has played a major role in Port au Prince becoming an over populated and, as we saw after the earthquake, vulnerable city.  With improved governmental capacity and accountability, a strong network of partnerships with regional, international and NGO partners, and a coordinated effort to rehabilitate the environment, progress is possible.  A stronger agricultural system means a better Haiti. Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section.





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