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Help Falls Short for Haiti's Farmers

Farmers near Petit-Goâve, Haiti, prepare the soil for planting.

Farmers near Petit-Goâve, Haiti, prepare the soil for planting.

Many who lost tools, seeds wait for help

High up a mountain near the town of Petit-Goâve, farmers are preparing the rocky soil to plant corn, beans, potatoes and other crops before the rains begin.

Sixty percent of the food produced in Haiti is planted at this time of year. It's hard work done with basic tools.

But many farmers lost the tools they need in January's earthquake.

Alix Placid and his neighbors were working near the mountaintop when the quake hit.

"While we were working, we realized the ground was shaking," he says. "We didn't know what was happening. The rocks were tumbling down around us. We dropped our tools and ran." Many farmers in Haiti use rudimentary tools.

Many farmers in Haiti use rudimentary tools.

A landslide buried his tools beneath a field of rubble. Above it looms a fresh white scar of newly exposed rock where the mountainside used to be.

Tools of survival

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is working to distribute new tools to as many farmers in the affected area as possible.

"To plant crops, we need a pick axe, machete and other tools," says farmer Jean-Nicole Gressy. "Otherwise, we can't do our work. You can't do it with a wooden stick. You need metal."

FAO says it has delivered tools and seeds to 68,000 families in the earthquake zone so far. Emergency coordinator Javier Escobedo says the organization plans to distribute 500 metric tons of bean seeds to farmers in the area.

"Everybody will receive that. It is what we [call] a blanket distribution. We have enough seeds for that." Free tool distribution near Petit-Goâve, Haiti.

Free tool distribution near Petit-Goâve, Haiti.

Help is slow to arrive

But so far, supplies are coming through slower than officials had hoped. Fritz had 245 complete sets of tools to give out. But far more people came than that. So he had to resort to giving one farmer a hoe, one a machete, and so on. Many received nothing.

And of the 500 metric tons of bean seed expected, only 27 tons had been delivered so far, according to FAO agronomist Arne Fritz, who is in charge of the emergency response in the Petit-Goâve area. "We don't have enough seeds to distribute to everyone. If we don't receive anything this week, well..."

Help may still be on the way. FAO hopes to continue distributing seeds through April. And donors pledged $5.3 billion for earthquake recovery at a UN conference in New York Wednesday. But whether that funding comes through and reaches those who need remains to be seen.

"Waiting for God's help"

On the mountaintop outside Petit-Goâve, farmers like Alix Placid can do little but wait.

"I'm waiting for God's help," he says. "We will find other ways to fend for ourselves. We lost our livestock and everything. We don't have anything to sell. We don't have anyone to help us."

But his friends are struggling, too, and for now they say they are not sure how much help they can offer.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.