PORT-MARGOT, HAITI — Jadeline François’ family has farmed poultry for generations. Her creole chickens not only provide food for her family, but when sold, fetch a higher price than imported chickens. They’re viewed as somewhat of a delicacy and are a popular offering to thank spirits during Vodou ceremonies.
François keeps some of the eggs from her chickens to feed her family and lets others hatch to add to the flock that roams free near her home in Port-Margot, a rural commune in northern Haiti where agriculture and fishing fuel the economy. But lately, her brood has been shrinking.
“I grew up seeing my mother farm, so it was only natural that I should take my turn. This allows us to provide for our families daily,” says François, who sells chickens to pay for her children’s school supplies. “But because of the disease, our chickens are dying in big quantities.”
After agriculture, raising animals for meat and milk is one of the main sources of income in rural communities in Haiti, generating millions of United States dollars annually for the Haitian economy. But every year, more than 1,000 hens die in Port-Margot from a disease known as chicken fever or Newcastle disease, a very contagious viral disease that affects birds, especially domestic poultry. Symptoms can include loss of balance, respiratory issues and abnormal head and neck position, but not all chickens display these symptoms, making the disease hard to contain.
At a time when heightened levels of violence and political instability are hampering the country’s economic and social capabilities, the prevalence of this disease is hindering people’s ability to make money from their chicken farms and feed themselves. Many breeders are forced to kill their animals before the disease spreads. A local veterinarian who has witnessed this disease wipe out hundreds of chickens wants to ensure farmers adopt better practices to contain the disease and is pushing for a vaccination program.
Located in the North Department, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) west of Haiti’s second-largest city Cap-Haïtien, Port-Margot is an agricultural commune of almost 50,000 people, according to 2015 government figures. Most of its farmers raise cattle, goats, pigs and poultry, playing a crucial role in the local economy.
Haitians tend to keep local chickens known as poulet créole or poul peyi. The meat is considered superior to the white leghorn chicken imported from neighboring Dominican Republic, and it can cost up to five times as much as imported chicken, making breeding these animals a lucrative occupation. Eggs from creole chickens can also fetch double the price of those imported from Dominican Republic.
Wyddiane Prophète, GPJ Haiti
“Chickens are a great economic resource in case of necessity,” says Dasline Nelson, who has been working as a shopkeeper and chicken breeder since she was 16 years old. “During my pregnancy, the money from their sale was used to buy everything that was needed for my baby. Unfortunately, this year, my chickens were affected by illness. I had 23 chickens, and I have only eight left,” she adds, referring to Newcastle disease.
These local chickens are much in demand for Vodou ceremonies, where they are offered to the spirits or loa in exchange for help with a particular issue, says Consius Leconte, a midwife and houngan, or male priest, who leads Vodou ceremonies. The black creole chicken is associated with Papa Legba, the loa who has influence over communication and speech; the red rooster is associated with L’inglesou, a much-feared loa. Chickens with no distinctive colors can be offered as a sacrifice to cure a sick person of their ailment, Leconte says.
But this in-demand local chicken is at continual risk. Once a chicken contracts Newcastle disease, it can spread to the entire flock within two to six days; farmers must act fast if they suspect any of their birds are infected.
According to a 2010 report by the Ministry of Agriculture, the disease can kill 60% to 80% of the poultry population each year. The report also outlined a proposal to address the issue, which included training chicken farmers to build proper coops for their stock and a prevention program coordinated by the state veterinary services. However, farmers in Port-Margot haven’t received any government assistance to fight this disease since a vaccination campaign almost three decades ago, according to Antoine Ferdinand, a veterinarian who was part of the 1994 program. Chicken farmers say home remedies and killing the chickens as soon as they show signs of illness is all they can do, making breeding, selling and living off this method of farming difficult.
The Ministry of Agriculture failed to respond to numerous requests for comment.
“This disease ensues at each season change, with temperature change, and can therefore strike three to four times in the same year,” says Ferdinand, who is also a former Port-Margot magistrate. “Several factors are responsible for its propagation in Port-Margot, among which is the practice of a rustic method of breeding.”
Wyddiane Prophète, GPJ Haiti
Many poultry farmers do not keep their flock contained, partly due to the cost of building a pen to house scores of chickens, but also because they believe it will prevent the birds from flourishing and producing a healthy flow of eggs. To keep their chickens close to home, farmers often mark them with paint and then tie them up for a week, feeding them regularly in the same spot. When they are set free, they often return to the place where they received food.
“Sometimes our hens lay their eggs elsewhere and they get stolen, or are killed by broad-winged hawks, but in the evening, when they climb trees to sleep, it’s good, as they are better protected from thieves,” explains François, who lives in the Bas Petit Borgne area of Port-Margot.
In the absence of an effective solution, chicken farmers make their own remedies. François says her remedies are made up of paracetamol, lemon juice and coffee, which she claims, when taken daily, improve the health of her chickens, though she has no way of knowing if they still carry the disease.
“If we can find help to launch vaccination campaigns in Port-Margot and have access to affordable chicken feed, it will help us a lot and we will be able to protect and produce more creole chickens,” says Jacquelin Gracius, a motorcycle-taxi driver and poultry farmer.
Ferdinand doesn’t want to wait for the government to organize a vaccination program for Port-Margot. He’s consulting with doctors, professors and farmers to set up a new organization which would provide a regular vaccination program. Meanwhile, all he can do is encourage farmers to build coops for their wandering creole chickens, an expense he knows many cannot afford.