May 3, 2015
May 3, 2015
Hurricanes, floods and a long drought have destroyed crops and livestock in recent years, devouring the profits and resources of many of Haiti’s 1 million small farmers. Along with deforestation, these extreme weather events have disrupted efforts to help farmers adapt to a changing climate.
DAME-MARIE, HAITI – Gerard Asson, a farmer in this seaside community on the southwestern tip of Haiti, grew his last rice crop in 2012.
“When I was about to pick my rice, Hurricane Sandy passed through,” says Asson, 70. “All the harvest was lost. This hurricane swept my fields and my neighbor’s with nothing left behind. I lost everything.”
After Sandy, which hit Haiti hard, Asson gave up on rice. The cost of producing the staple of the Haitian diet is just too high, he says.
Asson started growing banana trees and sugar cane. He even started lending a hand to pick coffee and cocoa to earn extra income for his family, which includes 21 grandchildren, many of whom live with him. But after the storms came a drought that lasted through most of 2014, making for a meager crop production.
For Haitian farmers, poverty is the only constant, Asson says.
In recent years, chaotic weather patterns have created serious challenges for the nation’s more than 1 million small farmers.
Hurricanes and floods are often followed by prolonged droughts, making it increasingly hard to earn a living farming.
Sandy caused more than $254 million in economic damage, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.
Such disasters disrupt crop production for years, Asson says. When hurricanes devastate crops, farmers are ill-equipped to remake their land. He says he had no choice but to shift to crops that can withstand the rains.
That is, if the rains come.
In 2014, an eight-month drought wiped out two crop cycles and caused significant livestock losses.
Louis-Marc Charles, who also farms in Dame-Marie, says being a farmer here is like being a soldier in war, always facing a deadly threat.
Hurricanes are bad, but droughts are worse, he says. The drought of 2014 was the worst he ever experienced.
“I tried to cultivate corn three times in 2014, but I did not manage to get even one ear,” he says. “I prefer the hurricane season to a drought.”
The drought also cost Charles his yam and taro crops and four goats, he says.
All told, he lost 15,000 gourdes ($317), he says. The average per capita income in Haiti is $820.
Weather projections for 2015 do little to calm farmers’ anxieties.
The Weather Channel has predicted a light hurricane season for the region, which could help farmers and NGOs bolster irrigation projects.
But the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, created by the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide early warning of food insecurity, reports that the 2015 spring rainy season is off to an irregular start, delaying planting and raising fears of another drought.
Natural disasters and climate change hamper agricultural production in Haiti, raising the population’s food insecurity.
The country is experiencing two hallmarks of climate change – higher mean temperatures and altered rainfall patterns, according to “Climate Change Resilience: The Case of Haiti,” a March 2014 report by the University of Montréal and Oxfam America.
Many NGOs and government organizations in Haiti are working to improve resilience-building measures, including flood control, reforestation and adoption of new crop varieties. While they offer training in farming techniques and alternative vocations, local farmers say they don’t have access to such instruction.
Local farmers look forward to a mild hurricane season. However, Haiti’s farming community continues to face serious financial challenges thanks to limited government investment and lack of regional capacity to assist farmers in times of crisis.
Haiti has one of the highest levels of food insecurity in the world, according to a 2014 report on food security by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Most Haitians are chronically undernourished.
Agriculture provides 50 percent of the jobs in Haiti and 25 percent of the country’s gross economy, according to FAO. The country’s more than 1 million small farmers own less than one hectare apiece, on average; a hectare is equal to 2.5 acres.
Despite the hardships that local farmers have faced in recent years, Charles says he has received no assistance from the government or the many NGOs that aim to support small farmers here. He expects he will have to give up farming.
“During this time, I have only been able to take care of my family with money that I make in other activities, not farming,” he says.
Asson agrees that assistance to farmers is minimal in this region.
“Despite the importance of Haitian farmers, those who practice this activity are the most despised,” Asson says. “I have never seen an official here after a natural disaster. I lost everything after Hurricane Sandy, but I have not received anything – not even some advice.”
Natural disasters have strained the resources of NGOs.
Rezo Pwodiktè ak Pwodiktris Agrikòl Dam Mari, or ROPADAM, a network of agricultural producers in the Dame-Marie area, provides assistance and training to farmers, but extreme weather has disrupted its work, spokesman Pierre Jean says.
“The hurricane ravaged much among farmers here,” he says. “Now, local organizations and NGOs have not been able to teach irrigation techniques in the absence of rains. Maybe that’s why we have seen such weak agricultural product in 2014.”
ROPADAM has no means to help farmers restore their gardens after the drought, Pierre says.
Henold Eveillard, a farmer in Anse-d’Ainault, a village in the Grand’Anse department, says extreme weather keeps him from earning a livelihood in agriculture.
“My farms have been destroyed by the wind,” says Eveillard, 34. “My cattle has been dragged by the water, and my house has been destroyed. I have lived many moments of misery, especially when all of my crops were lost.”
Because Haiti has little capacity to adapt to its rapidly changing climate, people here are increasingly reliant on costly food imports. Global prices for food staples, including rice, are expected to rise nearly 200 percent by 2030, according to the University of Montréal and Oxfam America report (CQ).
Increasing reliance on imports has “ominous implications for Haitian consumers,” who are among the poorest people in the world, according to the report.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Development can’t reach all the farmers in the Grand’Anse department, says Jean Robert Vladimir Potgony, Grand’Anse department director for the Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Development.
However, Potgony says he has selected some farmers in every communal section of the department to be trained in drought-resistant farming and other climate change adaptation strategies. He expects the selected farmers to pass on the knowledge to other farmers, he says.
The strategy to help farmers must come from the state, Potgony says. But ongoing issues, including deforestation, have impeded progress.
Haiti has the highest deforestation rate in the world; just 3 percent of its original forests remain intact. Deforestation on that scale contributes to soil erosion – a problem that is magnified by shifting rain patterns, Potgony says.
“The government must be more conscious about the local farmers around the country,” Potgony says. “Our focus should be for reforestation, to avoid deforestation and protect our natural resources.”
The Haitian government has begun designing and implementing policies to improve food security, according to the 2014 FAO report.
Public spending on food security and poverty reduction increased from just over 40 percent of total public expenditures in 2009 to 59 percent in 2013, according to the FAO.
Norma Mathias, a researcher at Fondation Nouvelle Grand’Anse, a nonprofit organization that fosters socioeconomic development in the Grand’Anse department, says government and NGO leaders need to engage and coordinate with local farmers to provide more training about planting techniques to preserve biodiversity and reduce reliance on pricey food imports.
But for Alexandre Sonel, a farmer in the municipality of Anse-d’Ainault, change cannot come fast enough. For now, he has given up on farming.
Sonel lost his banana and yam crops in the 2014 drought. He is poor and his family is miserable, he says. He struggles to put food on the table.
“To live, I must sell my days to another person,” he says. “Now, I make money using a hammer to break rocks all day long for construction. When the day ends, I get paid and I feed my family.”
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French and some interviews from French Creole.