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Uncovering the reality of Haiti's agricultural sector

Emergency seed was provided to farmers after the quake (Catholic Relief Services/Dina Brick)
Emergency seed was provided to farmers after the quake
Catholic Relief Services/Dina Brick

Nine months after the most destructive earthquake ever to hit Haiti, around 1.5 million people remain homeless, rubble still litters the capital and basic infrastructure is barely functional. The widespread impact caused by the earthquake triggered significant amounts of emergency aid pledged by foreign governments and NGOs. But a recent comprehensive assessment on seed system security there has recommended that there should be a move away from emergency agricultural interventions in favour of significant investment in small farmer-driven agricultural systems.

The comprehensive seed system security assessment (SSSA) was the first of its kind to be conducted in Haiti. Funded by the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the in-depth analysis was carried out by a team of international and national researchers* who conducted extensive surveys and community interviews to determine changes in assets and farming practices following the earthquake. The investigation covered ten sites and particularly focused on specific seed security issues, examining the effects of past seed aid and evaluating the needs for future seed system support.

Overall, the team discovered that the major constraints for rural households after the earthquake were financial with a loss of assets, an increase in household numbers and a reduction in food consumption. Whilst the stress immediately following the earthquake was significant, the assessment revealed little evidence of the disaster directly affecting agriculture. There was a dip in area planted just after the shock, but only because farmers lacked money to buy the abundant seed on offer. Projections for the current season show farmers well on the road to recovery.

A lack of innovation

Horticultural production in Haiti is particularly dynamic (Louise Sperling)
Horticultural production in Haiti is particularly dynamic
Louise Sperling

However, Louise Sperling, the leader of the assessment team from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), was particularly surprised at the lack of development in Haiti's farming systems. "I've worked in some severely affected countries, including Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Mali, but I have never seen such a suppressed agricultural system as we saw in Haiti. There is no access to new seed varieties, local varieties seem to have few names, and there is a distinct lack of innovation." Nevertheless, Sperling believes that whilst the problems in Haiti are chronic, there is a real potential for catalysing innovation and stimulating the seed-sector system.

Haitian farmers grow an impressive range of crops, cereals, legumes and fruits. A good proportion is sold to generate income, however very few are processed to add value. Flours, candy, sugar cane syrup, and peanut butter were recorded in the SSSA but little else. Although similar observations were made across all ten sites, it was noted that horticultural production was particularly dynamic, with communities investing in the production of a range of vegetable crops.

Extensive emergency seed was provided to Haitian farmers after the quake but it is not clear such direct aid was needed: seed was available across regions, but farmers lacked the means to access it - through purchase or barter. First and foremost, the SSSA team highlights the need for aid organisations to match their response to the actual problem at hand. To improve farmers' access to seed, the report recommends use of voucher systems. If seed availability is a problem, the report stresses that any seed given be adapted to local conditions, fit with farmers' preferences and be at least as good as seed traditionally used by farmers. Says Dina Brick of Catholic Services, co-SSSA team leader: "Too often, the seed provided fails to germinate or is not productive in farmers' real growing conditions. Bad seed aid makes stressed farmers even more vulnerable."

A need for coordinated action

Efforts to develop a sustainable seed production capacity should be intensified (© FAO/Giulio Napolitano)
Efforts to develop a sustainable seed production capacity should be intensified
© FAO/Giulio Napolitano

With the blossoming of development projects in Haiti as a result of the earthquake, and the need for rehabilitation, the report highlights that efforts to develop a sustainable seed production capacity should be intensified. Concerted efforts between partners, under the coordination of the Ministry of Agriculture (MARDNR), should also be made to introduce and disseminate improved varieties to farmers.

A few small-scale seed production initiatives are outlined in the report, which the SSSA team believes, with significant re-orientation, could be built upon. For example, newly-established farmer boutiques specialising in selling seed, fertiliser and agro-chemicals in rural areas, catalysed by USAID/WINNER**, are a recent development but more efforts are required to assess their social reach and economic feasibility. "Haiti has to move away from institutional buyers and towards real-life farmer clients," says Sperling. "The key will be to develop great varieties. Without these, the seed business in Haiti, geared to small farmers, is a non-starter."

With such comprehensive data now available on Haiti's seed system, the research team and their organisations behind the report are dedicated to making the information available to the widest possible audience. "Recommendations have been geared towards different stakeholders groups," emphasises Sperling. "But the major shift required is to develop pro-poor rural farmer driven development in Haiti."

*CIAT, CRS, SNS-MARDNR, UEA, FAO, World Concern, Save the Children, ACDI/VOCA and World Vision
**WINNER: Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources project

Date published: November 2010


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