text size: smaller reset larger



Haiti's earthquake: agriculture the key to recovery

Vital infrastructure, including irrigation canals, sustained major damage (©FAO/Javier Escobedo)
Vital infrastructure, including irrigation canals, sustained major damage
©FAO/Javier Escobedo

Even before the earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January, half the population suffered from malnutrition, three-quarters survived on less than US$2 a day, and 60 percent of the country's food was imported. Vulnerable also to hurricanes and flooding, losses and damage to the agricultural sector during 2008 were estimated at US$200 million. But, with an increase in agricultural production of 15 per cent in 2009, Haitian agriculture was showing signs of recovery. Now, with rising food prices, widespread displacement of people, and disruption of trade and agricultural activities as a result of the quake, Haiti is once again facing a major food crisis.

Limited access to good quality seeds, high levels of environmental degradation and poor soil quality, resulting from heavy deforestation and poor watershed management, all seriously constrain agricultural productivity in Haiti. With the additional impact of the food price crisis and the devastation of four back-to-back tropical storms in 2008, FAO launched a US$10 million project to multiply and distribute high quality vegetable and cereal seeds, as well as sweet potato cuttings and banana plants to improve yields.

Distribution of tools and fertilisers, establishing emergency seed stocks, promoting agroforestry and improving food processing and marketing activities were also initiated. According to FAO, Haitian agriculture was in the grip of a renaissance before the disaster struck, showing recovery is possible. But, concede FAO officials, it will take time and support to achieve this.

Immediate priority

The scale of the task is highlighted by Léogâne, a farming town located at the epicentre of the earthquake, which was almost completely destroyed. Vital infrastructure, including feeder roads, storage facilities and irrigation canals sustained damage, and many farmers lost tools, seeds and food under the debris.

"For the farmers around Léogâne the earthquake could not have come at a worse time," explains Alex Jones, FAO's emergency coordinator in Haiti. "Damage to irrigation works threatens the bean and maize crops that are just weeks away from being ready to harvest, while breakdowns in the supply of seed and fertilizer inputs will affect planting in the main March-to-May season."

Emergency cash-for-work schemes have removed earthquake and landslide debris from blocked irrigation channels (©FAO/Dick Trenchard)
Emergency cash-for-work schemes have removed earthquake and landslide debris from blocked irrigation channels
©FAO/Dick Trenchard

Accounting for 60 per cent of Haiti's agricultural production, the spring planting season is vital to prevent a further collapse in national food security and reduce dependence on food aid. "To prevent this urban disaster becoming a rural tragedy, it is crucial that we save the upcoming planting season," stresses Jacques Diouf, FAO's director-general.

According to official estimates, nearly 500,000 people have migrated from Port-au-Prince and Léogâne to rural areas. Dick Trenchard, FAO assessments coordinator in Haiti, is concerned about the increased pressure on rural households. "We are seeing clear signs that people are resorting to worrying and unsustainable coping strategies," he explains. "In many cases, poor rural families are resorting to eating stored seed for the next planting season and eating or selling their livestock." This, he adds, is resulting in a "hidden but pervasive" national food crisis.

In addition to implementing an emergency cash-for-work scheme to remove earthquake and landslide debris from blocked irrigation channels, FAO has been distributing much needed tools, fertilisers and quality seeds. For the estimated 1 million people living in informal camp sites, FAO is setting up urban and peri-urban mobile gardens to provide much needed food and boost nutrition.

For every US$1 invested in agriculture, FAO estimates that US$40-60 worth of food will be produced, sufficient to feed one family for several months. But of the initial US$23 million requested as part of the UN Flash Appeal for Haiti's immediate agricultural needs, only twelve percent has been funded. "At a time when Haiti is facing a major food crisis, we are alarmed by the lack of support," states Diouf. Due to the need for funds over the next year the figure required has risen to US$40.5 million.

The next steps

Rehabilitating the agricultural sector is a major priority for the Haitian government, which has drawn up a US$700 million investment plan for the next 18 months. This includes immediate interventions for the spring planting season, including the request for 2,000 tonnes of seeds, but also covers the rehabilitation of feeder roads and irrigation channels, reforestation, protection of watersheds, and the re-launch of a programme to encourage sweet potato cultivation.

Creating jobs in agriculture in rural areas for people is a long term priority (©FAO/Dick Trenchard)
Creating jobs in agriculture in rural areas for people is a long term priority
©FAO/Dick Trenchard

In order to support the Haitian Government's Programme of Action, FAO, IFAD and WFP have formed a joint taskforce. In addition to providing logistics to deliver seeds to villages, WFP is planning to purchase food locally to support farmers and market infrastructure. Joint cash-for-work programmes, to create jobs in rural areas and take the pressure off "host families", will also be scaled up in the coming weeks and months.

According to FAO, the long term priorities include improving natural resource management, food security and nutrition. In order to continue to reduce dependence on imports, FAO will continue to implement ongoing projects to strengthening farmers' organisations to improve their capacity to multiply quality bean, vegetable, maize, rice and sorghum seeds. Promotion of fruit trees such as mangoes, avocados and banana to reforest Haiti and provide food and income will also continue.

"Agriculture plays a key role in the solution to the Haiti crisis," Jones emphasises. "If people can find better livelihoods in rural areas, this would be a long-term solution to many social problems. But this means we really need to scale up our efforts."

Date published: March 2010


Have your say

I agree with you, but how can we scale up our efforts to hel... (posted by: Fadoju)


The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.
Read more