First Person

Does Haiti’s future lie in its neglected fields?

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Rice farmer Ynodyl Fils. Photo by Brett Eloff/Oxfam America
Rice farmer Ynodyl Fils. Photo by Brett Eloff/Oxfam America

Got an unexpected Christmas present this year: I woke up on December 25 to find a story in the New York Times on rural livelihoods in Haiti: Quake-Scarred Nation Tries a Rural Road to Recovery.

Here’s the key paragraph from the story: “When the earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010, planners and visionaries here and abroad looked past the rubble and saw an opportunity to fix the structural problems that have kept Haiti stuck in poverty and instability. An idea that won early support was to shrink the overcrowded, underemployed, violence-ridden capital and revive the desiccated, disused farmland that had long been unable to feed the country.”

So I spent part of Christmas morning studying the piece, as I had just spent part of the previous month in Haiti, and was trying to finish a story for Oxfam’s Exchange magazine on the very same topic. (Exchange readers will see it in their mailboxes in about a week.)

(The Times followed this up with an Op-Ed on 9 January by the co-directors of the Haiti Humanities Laboratory at Duke University entitled Haiti Can Be Rich Again encouraging support for small-scale farming. Conclusion: “The return on the investment in the rural economy would be self-reliance, the alleviation of dangerous overcrowding in cities and, most important, a path toward ending Haiti’s now chronic problems of malnutrition and food insecurity.”)

A quick review: lack of investment in agriculture and Haiti’s rural infrastructure, combined with macroeconomic policies that brought in cheap foreign competition in rice and pork and other food, has made farming a difficult way to make a living. Agriculture used to comprise nearly half of Haiti’s GDP; now it amounts to less than a quarter. Haiti now imports much of its food, and farmers have streamed into the city to seek work, part of the reason the January 2010 earthquake was such a disaster: a city designed for roughly a quarter million had about 3 million people there, many living in poorly constructed housing.

Farmer Perspective

Reading the New York Times article brought me back to Artibonite , the fertile, rice growing region in central Haiti, where I met Ynodyl Fils. Fils is 63 and has been growing rice since he was 12. He’s over six feet tall and looks incredibly powerful and fit. His short hair just slightly frosted with gray is the only hint of his true age. He says all his contemporaries look older and more broken down, and that his work is what keeps him looking half his age.

Fils is one of the founders of a network of rice grower cooperatives that Oxfam has been supporting steadily for 10 years. But he says he and his fellow rice farmers have not seen any of the billions pledged to help Haiti recover from the earthquake. “When it comes to resources for reconstruction for Haiti, the only way small farmers will get help will be to create a special mechanism to bring resources in a more direct way to farmers,” he told me while he was standing next to his field, just outside the town of Petite Rivière. “Otherwise there won’t be much impact.”

Fils told me that farmers are suffering due to competition from low-priced imports, and expensive inputs like fertilizer and seeds. He also said that since agriculture started tanking in the 1980s, security has become a serious issue: He and other farmers are sometimes robbed on the road home after selling their crops. All the hard work, expense, and unfair competition from abroad was too much for him on some days. On more than one occasion, he declared, “’I’m going to quit!’ But you have to feed your family and this is the only thing I know how to do—I just can’t give up.”

Support for growers

Oxfam has been supporting rice farmers like Fils in Haiti for years, and has been helping well-organized cooperatives improve production, processing, marketing, storage, and transportation networks. We’re also training farmers to advocate for better services from the government, to get more support for their work, and a fair share of reconstruction funds. Oxfam is also investing in irrigation and drainage systems in areas like the Artibonite River valley, which routinely floods during tropical storms, and can be too dry in some potentially productive areas. Oxfam also supported a pilot project to teach 135 farmers (inlcuding Fils) the System of Rice Intensification, which has shown so much promise in our work in Asia. But compared to the billions pledged to help Haiti, Oxfam’s work in rural areas is a relatively small proportion of the resources farmers really need to get ahead.

It was great to see the NY Times looking at this issue as it shows that others are thinking about supporting farmers as an essential means to defeat poverty in Haiti, an idea we’ve been promoting for some time –(see the briefing paper we published in 2010, Planting Now).  And that farmers like Fils, who refuse to quit no matter what, could get the help they need to prosper.

Many Americans I speak with say that Haiti looks like a hopeless case. I say that Haitians are hopeful; they are working hard and want our support. If a determined, hard-working farmer like Ynodyl Fils won’t give up, why should anyone else?

Oxfam’s GROW campaign is advocating tor the support that  small farmers like Ynodyl Fils need to improve their productivity, self-reliance, and access to resources like land and water.  You can lend your support to this work by joining the GROW campaign here. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+