Already Desperate, Haitian Farmers Are Left Hopeless After Storm
FAUCHÉ, Haiti — A woman who lost just about everything now gives her children coffee for meals because it quiets their stomachs a bit. Another despondent mother relives the awful moment when her 18-month-old baby was swept from her arms by a flash food. The bodies of a family of five killed in a mudslide still sit in a morgue unclaimed.
Haitians, who know well the death and despair natural disasters can cause, suffered mightily fromHurricane Sandy, which bashed the country’s rural areas and killed at least 54 people.
Three weeks after the hurricane’s deluge, Haiti, still struggling to recover from the earthquake in January 2010, is facing its biggest blow to reconstruction and slipping deeper into crisis, United Nations and government officials say, with hundreds of thousands of others at risk of hunger or malnutrition.
All around this hamlet and others nearby, the men and women who farmed bananas, plantains, sugar cane, beans and breadfruit stare at fields swept of trees, still flooded or coated with river muck that will probably kill off whatever plants are left. They had little, have endured much, and now need more. Hardened by past disasters, they still fear the days and weeks ahead.
“I do not know where we will find money for food and school now,” said Olibrun Hilaire, 61, surveying his wrecked plantain and sugar cane farm in Petit-Goâve that supported his family of 10 children and grandchildren.
As if the quake were not enough, Haiti is now suffering the combined onslaught of storms and, before that, drought, imperiling its food supply, causing $254 million in agricultural losses and throwing 1.6 million people — about 16 percent of the population — into dire straits.
Tropical Storm Isaac in August destroyed farms in the north, preceded by a spring drought that devastated farms there. Then came Hurricane Sandy, which passed west of Hispaniola and over Jamaica but was large enough to send 20 inches of rain over southern Haiti.
Last week, as the government and the United Nations took stock of the storm and grappled with flooding in the north from a fresh cloudburst that left 10 people dead, they issued an emergency appeal for $39 million in humanitarian aid to a world weary of its recurrent disasters. United Nations officials said they had received pledges for about $8 million, and the Haitian government said it was in talks with donors to raise at least half the requested amount.
“This is a major blow to Haiti’s reconstruction efforts, making life for most vulnerable Haitians even more precarious,” said the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, Nigel Fisher. “International partners’ ability to respond has been reduced by dwindling donor support,” he added.
The recent storms have damaged or destroyed 61 cholera treatment centers, leading to fears that there may be fresh outbreaks of an epidemic that has already killed more than 7,500 people since 2010.
The storm’s rare direct strike on the New York metropolitan area was devastating, but the heartache here, too, is wrenching and the recovery years off, if it happens at all.
Residents of Petit-Goâve, all of them quake victims who resettled in a plantain grove near a river, swam and climbed over tents and tombs in a nearby cemetery to escape the rising water. But Marie Helene Aristil lost her grip on her infant daughter, Juliana, whose lifeless body was found a mile away.
“It should have taken me, too,” Ms. Aristil, 25, said softly.
Jacqueline Sataille and her four children ignored warnings to evacuate their hillside hovel in Grand Goâve near here because they did not want to leave their possessions behind, friends said. Ms. Sataille and the children, ages 3 to 18, died when a section of the hill, denuded of trees, buried them.
A friend, Dornelia Raton, who lost her corn and bean crops and resorted to feeding her children just coffee for the day, said nobody had claimed the bodies for a funeral.
She looked to the heavens, humming a Creole gospel song with the refrain, “Jesus, this is my burden, please help me,” in answer to questions of how she would manage, with food as well as seed, fertilizer and other materials to replant her crops.
The hurricane took aim largely at agriculture, a quarter of Haiti’s economy. After the quake in 2010, there were promises, never fully met, of revitalization — things like new irrigation ditches and canals, river dredging and reforestation.
Though government officials have blamed unfulfilled aid pledges, international donors blame political uncertainty for the lack of progress. President Michel Martelly is on his second prime minister in a year and a half in office amid squabbles with Parliament.
“Donors don’t contribute if there is no government,” said Myrta Kaulard, the country director of the United Nations World Food Program, one of the agencies rallying aid to help 20,000 families make it through the winter.
The government estimates it will take $1.5 billion to modernize domestic agriculture and reverse decades of ill-conceived policies — including a reliance on cheap, subsidized American rice and Dominican poultry — that have left Haiti importing more than half of its food.
Farming has never been easy here, despite rich soil, regular rain and blasting sunshine. There is little irrigation to control the water, roads are so shot that produce spoils or is damaged before it reaches urban markets, and a good crop could yield about $1,000 for the year.
A number of initiatives have produced modest results in improving production and efficiency in farming, which 60 percent of Haitians, mostly tenant farmers on small plots, rely on to feed their families. But areport last month by Oxfam, an international aid agency, said there was no coordinated strategy to avert widespread crisis and neglect.
“The government and the international community must put greater emphasis on coherent agricultural policies to revitalize production and create value to help Haitians get back on their feet and improve their living conditions,” Oxfam said.
Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said in an interview this month that the government would focus more on shorter-term goals like dredging riverbeds and repairing bridges and roads, and less on “big studies” that never seem to go anywhere.
“We have limited means, and the devastation is huge,” he said, looking weary after having just received pictures of fresh flooding and casualties. “We are going to use this tragedy to invest in prevention.”
The government, Mr. Lamothe said, was working on plans to provide farmers with cash assistance and seeds and to use locally grown products in emergency food kits, to support farms that can still produce.
Economic distress in the countryside could undermine the government’s goal of halting migration to teeming big cities like Port-au-Prince, where severe overcrowding contributed to the high death toll in the earthquake.
“We are a fragile state and can only do what we have the financial means for,” Mr. Lamothe said.
But patience is wearing thin. There have been demonstrations in rural communities demanding more government help.
In Fauché, a name that can mean penniless or a scythe, protesting farmers blocked the main coastal highway this month for a couple of hours, after food handouts quickly ran out and other promised relief never arrived.
The devastation was pronounced, with trees snapped in half by winds and banana and plantain groves destroyed by rushing water. A 30-year-old man was missing, presumed swept into the sea, residents said.
Several residents blamed deforested hilltops — the trees were cut to make charcoal to sell — for the avalanche of water. They sounded skeptical that much would be done and knew from experience of past floods that the silt smothering good soil would take years to overcome naturally.
Brunel Casimir lost some of his plantain crop after Tropical Storm Isaac, but he had salvaged some saplings and had replanted them only to see Hurricane Sandy wipe out what had remained. Food prices at the roadside markets have already doubled this year; the $20 a week it costs now to feed his family of eight is out of reach.
“At night I pray to God,” he said, “and ask what can I do?”