Thursday, September 11, 2008

Failure To Address The Grinding Poverty Of Local Haitian Farmers

By Charles Arthur

Charles is a specialist in Caribbean affairs and the author of 'Haiti in Focus' (Interlink Publishing)]September 2004

The failure to address the grinding poverty of local farmers rather than their own greed that is the real culprit

Blame for the deforestation that has reduced tree cover from an estimated 60% in 1923, to less than 2% today, falls easily on the country's peasant farmers who make up nearly two-thirds of the population. But while they do indeed cut down the trees, they are not the guilty ones.

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Haiti's peasants are desperately poor - four out five farmers cannot satisfy their families' basic food needs. When you have nothing to eat, no animals to slaughter, no seeds to plant, nothing to sell, no prospect of finding paid-work, and your children's hair is turning orange because of malnutrition - what can you do? Felling some saplings and digging some roots to produce a sack of charcoal to sell for cash is, for many, literally a matter of life or death.

How did the Haitian countryside get in such a state? Part of the answer lies in a complex interaction of historical, political, and economic factors stretching back to the country's birth as an independent nation two hundred years ago. During the nineteenth century, former slaves and their descendants took what they most wanted - their own land - when and where they could find it. A nation of small-holders developed. Meanwhile, the country's ruling elite congregated in the coastal towns, living off the spoils of agricultural export taxes and plundering the national treasury.

This situation remained pretty much the same until the middle of the twentieth century, by which time individual land-holdings had been divided into smaller and smaller plots over successive generations. Farming methods had remained primitive, and the continual need to produce crops to live on, meant that farmland was being consistently overworked. As yields decreased, peasant farmers could not afford to leave land idle, nor allow trees to remain where new crops could be planted.

Haitian agronomists and foreign development experts have been considering the relationship between land-use, farming techniques and soil erosion since the 1940s. Remedies were proposed, but under the Duvalier family dictatorship (1957-86), Haiti's well-established corrupt and 'kleptocratic' style of government was taken to new extremes. Taxes went up. Prices paid for agricultural surpluses went down. The pressure on the land grew ever greater.

In the late 1980s peasant organizations flourished, and there was a glimmer of hope for Haiti's failing rural sector. Through the peasants' collective action, co-operatives and credit systems were set up, takeovers of idle land organized, and silos to stockpile grains built. Peasant leaders stressed the need to involve peasant farmers themselves in plans for rural renewal that would necessarily involve steps to restore the environment.

Land reform, especially the need to resolve disputes over land ownership, was on the political agenda for the first time. Insecurity stemming from the confusing state of land titles left peasants feeling vulnerable to eviction and therefore unwilling to plan for the future - unwilling to leave a sapling to mature.

When the democratic government was restored in 1994 following three years of military rule, there was a chance to implement bold moves to address the rural crisis. Unfortunately, the Haitian government was more or less entirely dependent on foreign assistance, and the structural adjustment policies favored by the international finance institutions had no place for agricultural development.

In a draft Country Assistance Strategy paper leaked in 1996, the World Bank warned that two-thirds of the country's workers based on the land would be unlikely to survive the neo-liberal economic measures demanded by the Bank and the IMF. The paper concluded that the rural population would be left with only two possibilities: to work in the industrial or service sector, or to emigrate.

And so it has come to pass. Foreign aid to Haiti has been turned on and off, but nearly all of it has been allocated to governance, security, elections and support for the private sector. Next to nothing has been done to support the agricultural sector - no land reform, no subsidies for fertilizers or storage facilities, no subsidized credit, no reforestation campaign, and no irrigation projects. At the same time, the free-marketeers have insisted on the reduction and - in some cases - the elimination of import tariffs, effectively destroying much local

Food production.

A Ministry of the Environment set up in early 1995 had plans to reduce urban consumers' demand for charcoal by promoting the use of gas stoves, to explore the option of importing alternative fuels, and to reforest mountain areas where key watersheds were located. However, none of these initiatives ever got off the ground because only 0.2% of the US$560 million foreign assistance allocated to Haiti during the mid to late 1990s was assigned to the environment.

The new government formed following the fall of Aristide in February is led by Gerard Latortue, a thirty year veteran of the United Nations system, and is stuffed with technocrats well-aware of the IFI's preferences. Its decision to downgrade the environment ministry to a state secretariat, gives a clear indication of its sense of priorities.

In May and June of 2004, while the southeast was still recovering from its fatal floods, hundreds of development experts were flown to Haiti to help the new government draw up plans for economic renewal. At an international donors conference in Washington DC in July, pledges of support exceeded the government's request for US$1.37 billion. Less than 10% of this total was allocated to the agricultural sector, and less than 2% for environmental protection �and rehabilitation.

By doing nothing to support the poverty-stricken peasantry, the international community is complicit in the loss of life and misery caused by this year's 'natural' disasters in Haiti. More tragic still is the realization that, if things continue as they are, future catastrophes are inevitable.

If Haiti's countryside and its people are left to an increasingly unproductive future, more and more of them will move to the fetid slums of Haiti's swelling cities in the hope of finding a livelihood. Must the fate experienced by the people of Gona�ves' shantytowns today, be shared by the poor inhabitants of Cap-Ha�tien and Port-au-Prince tomorrow?

Source: Heritage Konpa

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