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February 01, 2010

Exodus From Haitian Capital Might be a Good Thing

by Steve Baragona

Devastating quake could spark economic resurgence

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians are surviving on emergency food aid after last month's devastating earthquake in a nation that was already struggling to feed its people. But some food policy experts believe the disaster could eventually lead to Haiti's economic resurgence.  

Less than two years ago, riots broke out in Haiti when the price of food staples skyrocketed. It was the latest illustration of the island nation's long-running problems with food security. U.N. estimates going back to 1990 consistently show that more than half the population is undernourished.

The earthquake dealt another blow to the country's ability to feed itself. Irrigation systems, food processing plants and storage facilities in quake-affected rural areas have suffered damage. That's in addition to the devastation in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Destruction that will have ripple effects throughout the small country, according to Cristina Amaral, chief of emergency operations for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"The economic center, that was Port-au-Prince. The port, all the transportation network, the market chain and all the supply chain in the country has been completely disrupted," says Amaral.

Exodus to the countryside

Thousands are now fleeing Port-au-Prince for the countryside. Marie Ruel of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), says that could worsen Haiti's hunger problems. "In the short term, it puts a burden on people in the countryside to feed the more mouths that are coming, with them not having any more resource[s]," she says.

In the long term, however, some experts say the exodus from Port-au-Prince might be a good thing. The capital was overcrowded and could not support all the people who had been drawn there looking for work. The FAO's Cristina Amaral says coordinated efforts to support the new arrivals in the countryside would be a wise investment.  

"It will be certainly faster to improve the absorption capacity of the rural areas so the Haitians who have not suffered the earthquake could help their country-fellows to get some work in agriculture, to start to do food production," she says.

Opportunity in crisis

Amaral says a Haitian economic renaissance could start in these rural areas. She suggests beginning with an agricultural development program that puts people to work improving irrigation and possibly planting trees in the denuded countryside.

IFPRI's Marie Ruel would like to see Haiti's dismal road infrastructure improved. She says the earthquake actually presents Haiti with an opportunity. "Maybe with all the attention that Haiti has gotten now, if we can maintain that, maybe there will be some reconstruction efforts that will make things much better."

Before reconstruction begins in earnest, though, experts say the priority in the next few weeks will be to help supply Haitian farmers with seeds, fertilizers and tools for the March planting season. The FAO's Cristina Amaral would like to see food distribution centers give people seeds and equipment for simple backyard vegetable gardens.

Besides providing fresh wholesome food, watching a garden bloom could give Haitians some much-needed hope in desperate times, says Amaral.