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In a small town called Brocozele, you can stand at the edge of the irrigation channel running along the road and look out across the rice fields and see the problem: One part of the vast area in front of you is green with the nearly mature rice plants, and just next to it is a grey, brown expanse of land choked with weeds and little else. The local farmers just can’t get the water up and out of the irrigation channel and into these fields. And for the last 18 months they say there has not been enough rain to bother planting there.
The irrigation channel flows along, looking tranquil. In dry times, most of the water is in the nearby Artibonite River, and not much of it makes its way into the channel and to Brocozele. “There’s a lot of demand and not enough water,” says Cebey Augustin, who works for the Haitian Development Organization or OAD (for Òganizasyon Ayisyen pou Devlopman). Farmers keep working anyway, hoping to get enough to at least feed themselves, he says. “They are getting low yields and wasting money.”
However when it rains heavily, the channel overflows and destroys houses and crops. “The water takes away everything we produce,” says Elizabeth Dieujuste, a farmer in Brocozele. “It eats everything we grow.”
Farmers can lead recovery
I’m here to follow up on a story I wrote last year about the role of agriculture in the post-2010 earthquake recovery (see p. 8). I want to hear from the farmers themselves about the challenges, and find out what kind of changes they want to see. I’ve been talking with rice farmers in the Artibonite river valley as well as people in the greater Port-au-Prince area who want to start growing their own fruits and vegetables on the hillsides above the city, improving their own diets, earning money, and protecting the city from floods through reforestation.
History shows the potential of agriculture in Haiti: it used to account for most of the economy and provide most of the jobs. Part of the reason there were so many people in Port-au-Prince in 2010 (and why the earthquake became such a disaster) is that farming is no longer a viable way to make a decent living in Haiti. People moved to the city to try to eke out a living, and it will be hard to satisfy the demand for jobs (and clean water and sanitation) for survivors still in Port-au-Prince. A solid agricultural future for Haiti could go a long way to meeting this demand for employment.
Farmers know they are important to their country. I went to one meeting in Brocozele in which each of the speakers brought up the need for more investment in irrigation, roads, better tools and more modern processing facilities for rice farmers, all of which could provide much needed jobs. None spoke about their own poverty; over and over they said that they wanted to improve agriculture to help improve Haiti.
“After 200 years of freedom, it’s time to stop this exploitation here,” one of the leaders of the local farmers’ association named Cyrus Kelly says. He says they want to learn how to get the government to address these problems in Brocozele.
For many years, Oxfam has been helping farmers in the Artibonite River valley form cooperatives and work on improving their production, processing, and transportation. During this time, and most importantly now after the 2010 earthquake, many in Haiti have been asking for more investment in rural areas, and for the government and international donors to make agriculture a priority again. The farmers I spoke with are certain that they can succeed: As Madame Dieujuste puts it, “If we get the right support we will fight, and keep fighting.”