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February 21, 2010

Hunger Looms as Support for Haiti's Farmers Falls Short

by Steve Baragona

With the planting season approaching, farmers lack funds for seeds, labor

With Haiti's March planting season approaching, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is warning that international support for the nation's farmers is falling short after last month's devastating earthquake.

More than 60 percent of Haiti's annual food crop is planted in the season that begins in March, according to the FAO. To support this critical activity and help restore the island's quake-damaged food economy, the United Nations has requested member states to contribute $70 million to a special fund. But at a news conference earlier this week, FAO Director General Jacques Diouf said only a small fraction of that money has been pledged.

"At a time when Haiti is facing a major food crisis, we are alarmed by the lack of support for the agricultural sector component," he says. "With this level of support, the revival of the country's agricultural-base livelihoods cannot be ensured."

Rural demands


Demands on the country's agricultural base have increased sharply since mid-January because an estimated half-million people fled the ruined capital of Port-au-Prince for the countryside. Myra De Bruijn, with the charity group ActionAid, says Haitians were already having problems producing enough food before the quake.

"What is different now," says De Bruijn, "is that the population in some areas is five times more than the normal population. How can they cope with this pressure with the extra amount of people needing food?"

De Bruijn says people's immediate need for food also threatens longer-term food supplies. Hungry people will likely eat seeds they would normally plant for the next crop. And money spent buying food today means less available to buy seeds for the March planting season.

Cash for work

Sabine Wilke with the aid group CARE notes that farmers need more than just seeds. "For the harvest and for planting, they also need local labor," she says. "And since they do not have enough money to hire people, the work will simply not be done."

She says crops won't get planted and workers won't earn money, quickening the downward spiral of hunger and poverty.

CARE and the FAO are running a small cash-for-work program in the town of Leogane which is at the epicenter of the earthquake. The program will employ about 4,000 people who will clear debris from essential roads and irrigation canals, putting cash in some people's pockets while restoring essential farming infrastructure.

A number of groups are working with local organizations to distribute seeds and tools to needy farmers. But the needs are tremendous in a country where more than half the people were malnourished even before the earthquake.