Emergency Food Production in Haiti

Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Development (MARNDR) has formulated a 77-page Emergency Food Production Assistance Programme to respond to the needs of the large number of displaced people following last January’s devastating earthquake. The Emergency Programme which, to the best of my knowledge, exists only in French.

The programme is in two parts. Part 1 covers the following immediate and short – term urgent actions for the next – 3 to 6 months:

a) Support for Haitians who have migrated to the rural areas;
b) Increasing food security;
c) Economic improvement and development of rural areas;
d) Ensuring employment and a more equitable income for the urban population who were forced into rural exile.

Part 11 comprises a number of medium-term policy actions (9 to 18 months), of which the following are the most important: Increasing the availability of agricultural production inputs by acquiring and distributing a range of agricultural inputs: food crops seeds, chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and assorted agricultural materials, tools, and equipment. Those inputs will be purchased in the international market and provided to farmers at subsidized prices. The seeds would necessarily be High Yielding Varieties (HYV’s), not traditional seeds, which are not traded internationally. Among the other actions envisaged are measures in support of certain activities: pig rearing, chicken farming, cattle raising, control of vegetal diseases, aviculture, and agroindustry.

In its programme, MARNDR underlined the importance of agriculture in Haiti’s economy. Not only do more than 60% of the population derive their livelihood from agriculture but it also provides a large proportion of Haiti’s food supplies. Some of the principal objectives of the emergency programme are: promoting the social reintegration of Haitians who migraned to rural areas after the hurricane; increasing their employment opportunities; increasing their income-earning capabilities through labour intensive activities; and promoting a gradual transition from national food dependence to food sufficiency. Most significantly, MARNDR declared its intention to restrict the Emergency Programme’s activities to irrigated or irrigable areas, on the grounds that agricultural lands in such areas would be best able to sustain food production over the long term.

The estimated cost of the emergency programme is $687 million, more than half of which is allocated to infrastructural projects related to agricultural production – irrigation systems, rural roads, repair and reinforcement of river banks etc. The second most important allocation is for mechanical equipment, such as tractors and ploughs ($113.5 million). Other budgetary allocations, in descending order of magnitude, are re-afforestation ($58.1 million), animal husbandry – cattle and goat rearing, aviculture, apiculture ($37 million), anti-erosion structures ($20 million), fertilizers ($18.4 million), pesticides ($4.7 million), and seeds ($5 million).

The Haitian NGO, Haitian Platform for an Alternative Development (PAPDA), has published a 14-page document which, apparently, also exists only in French. It contains a critical analysis of the Emergency Programme and an alternative agricultural development strategy.

PAPDA’s critique of MARNDR’s Emergency Programme and its alternative development strategy proposals largely coincide with those in this paper. However, neither the critique or the alternative strategy is supported by detailed arguments or case illustrations, which limits their impact. Both PAPDA’s critique and the alternative agricultural development strategy it proposes are summarized in the full version of the paper, accessible at:

Considered together with the Haitian Government’s Action Plan for the Reconstruction and Development of Haiti, presented to the March 31 Donor conference in New York, the two programmes provide a very revealing insight into the Government’s conception of development, of the place accorded to agriculture in the country’s development, and of the type of agriculture it favours.

The Action Plan (which is in English) not only dovetails perfectly with MARNDR’s Emergency Programme but a close reading of both further supports the arguments and conclusions in PAPDA’s critique re the priority given to international interests over national interests, the indecent emphasis placed on imports from the North, and the marginalization of both agriculture and the environment in the Emergency Programme. In a recently posted article, Donor Conference: For $10 billion, Haiti Surrenders its Sovereignty, journalist Kim Ives calculated that only $41 million (0.3 percent) of the $12.2 billion Aid request, which Haiti presented to the Donor Conference, would be for agriculture and fishing.

MARNDR’s Proposal to Mechanize Haitian Agriculture

A significant proportion (one sixth) of the Emergency Programme’s total budget is for the purchase of tractors and motorized ploughs which, for several important reasons, is quite astonishing. Firstly, the mechanization of agricultural production was adopted in the US and other industrialized countries as a labour-saving technology. As Robert Loomis pointed out,

“The extensive reliance on machines in the United States does not indicate highly intensive farming because machinery by itself is not an indicator of intensity. Although some intensification is achieved with mechanisation (e.g. through a better seed bed and a more timely harvest) yields can also be lowered when wide spacing of rows is required to accomodate machinery and when the operation of machinery compacts the soil. What the machine-oriented agriculture of the United States reflects is the optimization of labour in a social environment where land, energy and capital are relatively cheap.” (Agricultural Systems, Scientific American, September 1976).

In Haiti, where labour is plentiful, capital in extremely short supply, and energy very expensive, mechanized agriculture is highly inappropriate. Secondly, there is considerable developing-country evidence that the use of tractors are uneconomical and unsustainable for developing countries. René Dumont, the noted French agronomist, has underlined that fact:

“Use of tractors has been uneconomical everywhere: in Boulelel-Kaffrine, the centre for mechanized peasant cultivation in Senegal where they still scrape off the topsoil when they fell trees; at Loudina in the Congo; on the rice plantations in the Niger Valley (Guinea, Mali, Niger) and Logone Valley (Chad and the Cameroon) and at the CRAM in Madagascar.” (Rene Dumont, False Start in Africa, 1966).

Zambia and Tanzania had a similarly disastrous experience with tractors, which compelled them both to abandon tractor use after having invested (and lost) considerable a amount of money. In the 1970’s, Zambia established a tractor hire programme for small farmers, exactly as Haiti plans to do. That programme failed because Zambia possessed no tractor manufacturing units or facilities for manufacturing spare parts and thus had to depend on imports, which became very uneconomical. Costly fuel bills and the lack of qualified technicians to service the tractors led to increased tractor hire fees, which soon put them out of the reach of small farmers. Zambia abandoned the use of tractors towards the end of the 1980s, replacing it with animal traction. (Francis Mwanza, Gone to Graveyards, Every One, CERES, May/June 1992).

Tanzania adopted tractor mechanization in the 1960s, also on a rental basis, but abandoned it in the 1980s because it was uneconomical and caused serious soil erosion. (R. D. Mann, Time Running Out: The Urgent Need for Tree Planting in Africa, Ecologist, March/April 1990). One of the principal objectives of the Emergency Programme is job creation. Allocating one sixth of the Programme’s budget to acquire labour-saving agricultural machinery could not be more contradictory. The government’s planned acquisition of motorized ploughs, another labour-saving technology, is equally contradictory. Moreover, like tractor use, it flies in the face of long-held expert opinion and tropical country experience, which have established the much greater benefit of zero tillage over ploughing.

Tillage, which is essentially a temperate zone practice, is inappropriate for tropical country soil and climatological conditions, because it exposes the soil to the impact of raindrops, which is a principal cause of soil erosion. Not only is raindrop impact greater in the tropics, but heavy concentrated downfalls are more common than in temperate zones, and the tropical topsoil is thinner and more fragile. Frequent torrential rains cause considerable soil erosion in deforested Haiti, often in the form of mudslides.

Sylvan H. Wittwer, the American agrononmist, described some of the benefits of reduced tillage more than 30 years ago:

“Reduced tillage is the most significant technology man has yet developed for control of soil erosion, for maximisation of cover on the land, and for the conversion of energy, labour, water, soil fertility and organic matter for the main food producing areas of the earth. In addition, a higher proportion of land in hilly areas can be brought into production or planted to more profitable crops.” Assuring Our food Supply – Technology, Resources and Policy, World Development, Vol.5, Nos.5-7, 1977).

Discussing the results of an experiment conducted in Northern Nigeria, over a period of several years, Akinola Agbola, the Nigerian agronomist, concluded:

“It is generally believed that if weeds can be controlled by any other means, the usefulness of mechanical tillage as a method of seed bed preparation is questionable at best, and unnecessary and harmful at worst.” (Effect of Different Cropping Systems on Crop Yield and Soil Fertility Management in the Humid Tropics, FAO, 1980).

Conservation Agriculture (CA)

The website of FAO’s Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department (http://www.fao.org/ag/ca/) declares that conservation agriculture (organic agriculture) holds tremendous potential for all sizes of farms and agro-ecological systems, but that its adoption is perhaps most urgently required by smallholder farmers. Haiti’s farmers are, overwhelmingly smallholders, which would suggest that that system is ideal for the country. Moreover, as FAO states, conservation agriculture is a way to combine profitable agricultural production with environmental concerns and sustainability (which is exactly what Haiti needs) and that it has been proven to work in a variety of agroecological zones and farming systems. According to FAO, conservation agriculture would also improve the livelihoods of farmers, which is a major objective of the Emergency Programme. Conservation agriculture seems “tailor made” for Haitian farmers.

FAO’s description of CA’s manifold benefits is posted here.

FAO further emphasizes that CA reverses soil degradation processes (according to FAO, 42.6% of the total land area in Haiti is degraded) and builds up soil fertility by facilitating better infiltration of rainwater and enabling the recharge of ground water which reduces erosion and leaching and, in turn, water pollution: “CA reduces crop vulnerability to extreme climatic events. In drought conditions, it reduces crop water requirements by 30 percent, makes better use of soil water and facilitates deeper rooting of crops. In extremely wet conditions, CA facilitates rain water infiltration, reducing the danger of soil erosion and downstream flooding.”

The CA agricultural model thus appears to be a perfect solution for the whole range of Haiti’s agricultural development problems. Most importantly, it would provide an effective response to one of Haiti’s most daunting problems, which was graphically described in MARNDR’s Programme:

“Haiti has a long history of natural disasters, linked essentially to climatic and metereological conditions. Such conditions are responsible for the climatic phenomena of chronic droughts and flooding, from which Haiti has suffered for quite some time….” Some of ther considerable benefits of CA are illustrated in this FAO video, Conservation Agriculture in Southern Brazil.)

The Milpa System

Jesús León Santos, a Mexican agro-ecologist, won an international environmental prize in 2008 for successfully reversing the advanced process of land degradation in the Mixteca region (Mexico), and restoring its ecosystem. He did so by reintroducing and modernizing a pre-Columbian indigenous system of integrated resource management (milpa), which applies agricultural principles that are very similar to those of conservation agriculture. Mixteca’s agricultural lands had become uncultivable, after having lost their fertility as a result of the same agricultural production techiques – heavy mechanical tillage, high-yielding seed varieties, and increased use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides – that Haiti now envisages.

Milpa fixes nutrients in the soil and creates natural barriers to pests and disease, producing high crop yields without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It enabled Santos and his peasant farmer organization (CEDICAM) to transform the barren, highly eroded area into rich, arable land – results that are strikingly similar to those produced by conservation agriculture.

H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts, declared thatthe milpa system “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.” (cited in Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2005). That extraordinary compliment certainly validates the call for “the recovery, revalorization, and strengthening of the knowledge, wisdom, and ancestral practices of Indigenous Peoples” contained in the World People Summit Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.

Santos discusses the milpa system and how it has restored fertility to degraded Mixteca lands in the following video. Moreover, the milpa concept is much more than a system of ecological agriculture – it is a sociocultural construct which involves complex interactions and relationships between farmers, the local community, the crops, and the land. That characteristic plays to the social strengths of the Haitian people – “fraternity solidarity, and mutual aid” – as described in the YouTube video, Fault Line Haiti: The Politics of Rebuilding. This paper suggests that Haiti should adopt that excellent, neighbouring agricultural system, instead of the one it has chosen.

Food and Nutrition

In the following YouTube video, How did the Red Cross spend $106 Million Dollars in Haiti? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trSfACmrc_E), a Haitian camp leader declares that camp dwellers suffer from “extreme famine”. The activities relating to food and agriculture in the Government’s Action Plan complement the relevant provisions in its Emergency Programme, the leitmotiv of both programmes being, apparently, the same – the maximization of imports from the industrialized (Donor?) countries. The Action Plan underlined the risk of acute malnutrition which Haitians face, particularly children under five and pregnant and breast-feeding mothers. The Government plans to deal with that problem by importing nutritional supplements (provided no doubt by multinational firms) for distribution to “495,000 children below the age of 5 and 200,000 pregnant and lactating mothers…” This paper suggests, instead, that malnutrition in Haiti could be more effectively countered by supplies of quinoa from its two main producers – Bolivia and Peru.

Quinoa’s nutritional qualities are considered so outstanding that it is sold as a health food in the United States. “While no single food can supply all of the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinua comes as close as any other in the vegetable or animal kingdoms [to doing so]”.(Philip White et al, Nutrient Content and Protein Quality of Quinua and Canihua, Edible Seed Products of the Andes Mountains, Agricultural and Food Chemistry, June 1955). Quinoa possesses an exceptional balance between oil, protein, and fat and its nutritional balance comes closer than that of any other food grain to the ideal FAO has established in its reference table for evaluating proteins. Most varieties of quinoa are unusually high in the essential sulphur-bearing amino acids – methionine and cystine – which, because they cannot be synthesized by the human organism, must be obtained from a food source. Those two animo acids are particularly important for children in their early growing years. “It [quinoa] holds exceptional promise as a weaning food for infants, especially in nutritionally-deficient Third World areas.” (Omar Sattaur, Botanical Entrepreneurship, CERES, January/February 1991).

Instead of increasing food security, stimulating agricultural development, generating employment for the rural population and post-earthquake urban-rural migrants, and reversing the process of environmental degradation in order to create optimal conditions for re-launching agricultural production, the Government’s Emergency Programme is likely to produce results that are exactly the opposite.

The use of tractors would significantly reduce, rather than increase, opportunities for rural employment. The only jobs it will create would be at Caterpillar and similar multinationals. Tractors also compact and harden the topsoil, increasing water-runoff and facilitating flooding when torrential rains, to which Haiti is very prone, occur. Mechanical ploughing destabilizes the structure of fragile tropical soils, causing a loss of nutrients and organic matter which can significantly reduce crop yields. Ploughing also exposes the soil to the impact of heavy tropical raindrops, which would accelerate soil erosion particularly, in Haiti’s climatological conditions.

The use of HYV’s increases the risk of food insecurity instead of reducing it, because their absolute need for a regular, adequate supply of water would not be met during the periods of chronic drought to which Haiti is prone. Moreover, apart from water, HYV’s require fertilizer and pesticides, without which crop yields would be substantially lower. Because of the considerable environmental degradation they cause, such chemical inputs could, over the long term, destroy the fertility of agricultural lands to such an extent that they become uncultivable, as happened in Mixteca.

The use of HYV’s will promote exclusion rather than inclusion since their absolute need for water led the Ministry to exclude non-irrigated or non-irrigable areas from the Emergency Programme. Proprietors of excluded farm lands would necessarily be the country’s poorer farmers. Such exclusion would further impoverish the poorer sections of Haiti’s rural population, thereby increasing socio-economic inequality and, probably, causing serious social unrest.

Finally, several key components of the Emergency Programme – tractors, mechanical ploughs, fertilizer, pesticides – are either produced from fossil fuels or need them for functioning. Petrol prices are set to increase substantially when the current world recession ends. The US dollar, in which petrol prices are denominated, is currently undervalued vis-à-vis the euro and other major currencies. The dollar will appreciate not only in respect of those currencies over the medium and long term but, also, against the weak Haitian gourde. The Haitian Government will have to utilize a steadily increasing amount of its currency to purchase the same quantities of agricultural inputs, priced in appreciating US dollars, to continue making them available to Haitian farmers at subsidized prices. That policy is unsustainable. The Government will either have to abandon it or reduce the subsidy considerably. Many Haitian farmers, especially the poorer ones, will face ruin and bankruptcy  because they would be unable to pay the higher prices. The net effect will be a general increase in rural poverty. Farms will be abandoned (as occurred in many African countries which had implemented similar policies), leading once again to massive rural-urban migration.

For a more detailed account of food production challenges in Haiti click here.

MERVYN CLAXTON (Trinidad and Tobago) a consultant and former international civil servant with UNESCO who has written widely on the subject of Culture and Development