First Person

In Haiti, recovery takes root in the rice fields

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When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in January, 2010, it shone a spotlight on the need to ease the dangerous overcrowding in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. So, after responding to the disaster with emergency programs,  Oxfam shifted some of our focus to the countryside. Together with our partners, we ramped up our efforts to reinvigorate the rice economy of the Artibonite Valley, with the goals of reducing rural poverty, contributing to food security in Haiti, and—by making rice farming more viable —counteracting the continuous pull to migrate from the country to the city. As Oxfam’s Elizabeth Stevens reports in a series of blog posts, Haiti’s rice farmers are embracing the program and making it their own.

"If your crops fail, you become poor," said Willi Elimelec (above). "You can't send your children to school." Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam
At a roadside plot of land in Petite Rivière de l’Artibonite, I watched as Willi Elimelec raised an armful of fresh-cut stalks of rice over his head and struck them against a weathered log. With a whoosh and a gentle clatter, seeds flew into the air and then settled in a pile as he drew back for another stroke. The rhythmic, age-old sound of threshing by hand was drowned out each time a truck roared by—a reminder of the uneasy place the farmer occupies, with one foot in the world of his ancestors and one in a fast-paced globalized marketplace.

Here in the lush Artibonite Valley—a region that produces an abundance of rice—the farmers are poor. Undercut in the market by cheap imported rice and lacking the basic governmental supports that farmers in wealthy countries take for granted, Haiti’s small-scale rice growers can barely eke out a living.

My best analogy for their situation is of a farmer who grows wonderful rice but whose carrying sack is riddled with holes. In Haiti, unfavorable trade agreements have torn a gash in every farmer’s sack of rice. Neglected infrastructure—derelict irrigation channels in particular—has ripped the fabric, as well. Because small-scale farmers can’t access fair sources of credit, loan sharks have torn holes in the bag, siphoning off profits with sky-high interest rates. And weather events that wipe out crops can split the seams at any moment. By the time Haitian-grown rice reaches the marketplace, most of its value has slipped away.

Freshly milled rice at an Oxfam-funded processing center in the Artibonite Valley. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

So, Oxfam and the farmers’ associations and women’s groups we work with have set out to mend what damage we can. Together, we are ushering in a method of growing rice that increases yields and reduces inputs; clearing miles and miles of irrigation channels; replacing costly chemical fertilizer with homegrown compost; introducing small-scale mechanization; installing new mill equipment; providing access to low-interest loans; helping farmers get up and running again after hurricanes, and more. We are pressing the government and key international actors to establish fair policies and programs, and in the Valley we are working hand in hand with the government—sharing knowledge and experience to improve the reach and sustainability of our successes.

It is beginning to work.

Improved crop yields and irrigation have meant more households now have enough to eat. Women are taking tiny loans and turning them into big gains for their families. And some of the young people in the Artibonite who would otherwise have uprooted and headed to Port-au-Prince have told me they are starting to see a future in the countryside.

“I am really, really happy to have Oxfam in the Valley,” said Jean Jeannot Luma of the government’s agricultural extension service. “Oxfam came here to the grassroots to find the farmers and the government and create partnerships. This is why there is hope.” Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+