A Future for Agriculture, A Future for Haiti

We plant but we can't produce or market. We plant but we have no food to eat. We want agriculture to improve so our country can live and so we peasants can live, too. - Rilo Petit-homme, peasant organizer from St. Marc, Haiti

March 2, 2010 | Source: Common Dreams | by Beverly Bell

We plant but we can’t produce or market. We plant but we have no food to eat. We want agriculture to improve so our country can live and so we peasants can live, too. – Rilo Petit-homme, peasant organizer from St. Marc, Haiti

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 no longer to 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 which is still majority 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).

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 and 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 a 200,000 to 250,000, with most 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 capitol to enter the ranks of the 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.