Friday, September 5, 2008

Back-to-Back Storms Leave Haiti Farms Reeling

Evacuees from Hurricane Gustav take shelter at a school in Petit Goave, Haiti, Friday, Aug. 29, 2008. Gustav ripped off roofs, downed power lines and pounded rain into Jamaica, triggering landslides and flooding and four deaths before moving out to sea Friday. That raised Gustav's overall toll to 71 lives after earlier deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Looking over his field of toppled banana trees, Jean Tilhomme Fontius said he had no choice but to raise prices on a staple fruit in this food-starved country after Hurricane Gustav battered his crop.

"I don't know how much we're going to sell them for now, but the price is going to have to go up," said the 51-year-old farmer, offering an apologetic shrug.

Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Fay both slammed Haiti in the past two weeks, killing at least 95 people and dealing a serious setback to efforts to boost agricultural production and break the impoverished country's dependence on imported food.

Relief workers are scrambling to respond to a crisis within a crisis as storm damage combined with persistent food shortages threatened to destabilize an already fragile political situation. Even as Gustav assaulted the southern city of Jacmel on Tuesday, protests over food prices were starting anew.

On Sunday, more than 8,700 people were still in shelters, some running out of food, while a preliminary U.N. report said Gustav's destruction to Haitian cropland was "very significant."

World Vision International planned to distribute food for 400 people on Friday, only to see 1,000 show up.

Almost 90 refugees in the town of Petit Goave still waited for food in a school shelter three days after the storm. A single pot of unseasoned beans simmered unwanted on a charcoal stove. The refugees refused to eat them without rice.

"We've been out of food since yesterday. The people outside are screaming," said the municipal official in charge of the shelter, Fritzgerald Douge, who had ducked into the principal's office to avoid an angry crowd of mothers.

The Western Hemisphere's poorest nation was already reeling from skyrocketing world food prices and rampant child malnutrition. Food riots in April left at least six Haitians and a U.N. peacekeeper dead and toppled the prime minister.

Only a fraction of tens of thousands of tons in food aid promised to quell the riots had been delivered by July.

The storms struck just as Haiti was making progress. World Vision International reached its goal of handing out more than 550 tons (500 metric tons) of food in August — including some that had piled up in warehouses in July.

New Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis, who was approved by parliament in late July, was working to build a new government.

But farms on Haiti's southern peninsula were first drenched by Fay and then flattened by Gustav, which roared ashore as a Category 1 hurricane, ripping apart tin shacks, toppling mountainsides and sending cascades of water into vulnerable fields below.

According to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report released Saturday, six miles of irrigation channels were destroyed in the peninsula town of Belle Roche. In another group of towns near Jacmel, 2,000 heads of livestock were swept away by rushing rivers, the report said.

Hardwood trees that should have protected Fontius' fields were cut down years ago to sell for charcoal, allowing the storm to flatten hundreds of his banana plants and leave behind a thick carpet of sandy mud.

Fontius and other farmers in the small peninsula town of Fauche, about an hour west of Port-au-Prince, had been selling most varieties of bananas and plantains for around US$3.55 a bunch, anywhere from 60 to 100 individual pieces.

Now they will likely double their prices to keep their families from going hungry.

"We have nothing," said Fontius, whose eight children range from ages 12 to 27. "Life is like living in a cloud for us. We never know what is going to happen."

Aid groups and government officials sent teams of agricultural monitors and promised aid to shelters by next week.

Some monitors had to wait until Friday to tour the damage because of a travel ban imposed by U.N. peacekeepers.

A local Interior Ministry official in nearby Grand Goave said the impact of the storms would continue reverberating for months in meager harvests and with families whose losses force them to pull children out of school.

With Tropical Storm Hanna churning north of the Bahamas and a tropical wave headed west from the African coast, those who work in Haiti know the worst may not be over yet.

"Every day the situation is getting worse. The people are planting and waiting for food when these hurricanes go through," said Pierre Antoinier St.-Cyr, who monitors Les Cayes for the Lambi Fund agricultural group. "We have to keep starting over all the time."

Source: PalmBeachPost.Com

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