Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hurricane Victims Left Hungry In Caribbean

The busy hurricane season dealt a lethal blow to Haitian and Cuban agriculture, wiping out food reserves, sustenance crops and produce for the world market, where prices continue to rise.


[caption id="" align="alignright" width="316" caption="The onslaught of recent storms and hurricanes that have come through this area have flooded farms and ruined crops. Rice farmer Selonger Pierre, 50, who was trying to salvage what was left of his crop shared his frustration with visitors."]The onslaught of recent storms and hurricanes that have come through this area have flooded farms and ruined crops. Rice farmer Selonger Pierre, 50, who was trying to salvage what was left of his crop shared his frustration with visitors.[/caption]

Rice paddies in this northwest village lie submerged in pools of water, some of them the size of lakes. In the south, entire groves of plantain trees have toppled. And in the central plateau, wilted beanfields and cornfields limp in ruin -- remnants of Haiti's battering by four consecutive storms.

In Cuba, trucks loaded with stacks of plantains rumble down storm-wrecked roads. Farmers are in a hurry to salvage what they can in a country that just lost 80,000 acres of bananas and 4,355 tons of food that was stored in warehouses when two hurricanes in as many weeks hit there.

''That's the one thing we will have for days and days and days,'' said Rosa Arrencibia, 47, of Camagüey. ``Plantains.''

A busy hurricane season has hit Cuba and Haiti where it hurts most: in the heart of agriculture. This hurricane season hasn't just brought death, but also destruction to those two countries as well as to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, washing away months of food staples at a time when nations face rising global food and fuel prices.

For Haiti, the toughest loss was in the Artibonite Valley, the heart of the country's already paltry breadbasket. Cuba suffered agricultural losses on both coasts, where storms wiped out not just the bananas that farmers scrambled to recover, but the entire sugar cane crop, 135,000 tons of citrus and a staggering 700,000 tons of food.

''That's devastating,'' said Bill Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida, who monitors Cuba's farming industry. ``For agriculture, this is a tremendous blow.''

Cuba was already struggling to increase food production and had recently begun a quest to give unused state land to farmers. But with huge losses to coffee, tobacco, sugar and most other crops, experts say it will take more than extra incentives for farmers to recover.


''The big unanswered question in this story is the food supply,'' said Cuba expert Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Va. ``They lost food in the warehouses, crops in the fields, and the crops that earn the foreign exchange they use to earn revenue to import food. That's three problems that add up.''

Feeling an equal blow is Haiti, where widespread hunger triggered deadly riots earlier this year, and where the storms ruined more than 50,000 acres of crops and dashed any hope of reviving this nation's agriculture to replace expensive, imported rice and other food products.

Government officials estimate the loss at $180 million -- and counting.

''This couldn't have happened at a worse time for us,'' said Joanas Gué, the country's new agriculture minister.

``The four storms that arrived came during a period of harvest. We've lost all of the beans in the mountains. We've lost all of the plantain fields, especially in Belle-Anse and Marigot in the southeast, the plantain bed. We've lost a good portion of the corn harvest.''

There is little promise of a quick recovery for Haiti, where farmers say all they can do is pray for no more rain.

''Things are not good, but what can we do?'' said Selonger Pierre, 50 and a father of five, who was feverishly plowing and plucking away in his flooded rice paddy just hours before Hurricane Ike flooded the valley once more. Wading in thigh-high muck, he reflected on his situation: The rains didn't just flood his fields -- they washed away livestock.

''We are nearing starvation,'' he said.

Just before the storms, Haiti had poured more than $30 million in to this season's rice crop and invested $13 million in more than 26,600,000 pounds of fertilizer, selling it at 80 percent below market value to already-struggling farmers.

Haitian farmers and consumers were close to reaping the rewards -- 120,000 metric tons of rice, 30,000 more than than last year -- of those investments when the storms came barreling through, sending mud and rocks rolling from the hillside, rivers overflowing their banks and irrigation canals into disarray.

''We will have a huge food deficit,'' said Gué.

Mostly used for domestic consumption, the crop is a lifeline for most Haitians, who often can't afford much else.

''We lost all of our trees,'' said Jean-Mario Pierre, 24, looking at his backyard in Vialet, a rural community in southern Petit-Goave, where not one plantain grove survived Hanna's destruction.

Pierre said the grove, which has been in the family since 1982, feeds and clothes 17 family members, all of whom live in the yard. When the family grows tired of eating plantain, they barter.

''Sometimes you sell the plantain, and you can't even buy three cups of rice because the rice is so expensive,'' he said. ``We have no other choice but to suffer.''

Less than a quarter-mile down the road, Clermont Beaubrun, 60, waded through his grove of toppled trees with a machete, looking for the last of his plantains.

''The grove is destroyed,'' he said, his voice laden with frustration. ``We are now at the mercy of God, and the government.''

Even before the storms, Haiti's government was struggling to feed the country's nearly nine million people. The riots toppled the prime minister and sparked a worldwide appeal by the United Nations and others for aid. The United States shipped $45 million worth of food, which was supposed to last until the end of the year, but is running out because of the storm crisis.


''We have a good recipe for a disaster that's worse than a humanitarian crisis,'' said Joel Boutroue, the United Nations Development Program resident representative in Haiti.

Boutroue, like others in the international community, is concerned about how long Haitians, resilient in the face of misery, will battle hunger this time around before a repeat of April's deadly riots.

''The security situation is even more fragile than what it was,'' says U.N. Special Envoy Hédi Annabi. ``Prices will go up, the scarcity of food, all of that could make the security situation more fragile.''

That impending reality worries Haiti's international donors.

''It used to be a question of affordability,'' U.S. Ambassador Janet Sanderson said about Haiti's food crisis. ``Now it's a question of availability as well. That's a double whammy.''

Miami Herald staff writers Jennifer Lebovich, Trenton Daniel, Patricia Mazzei, correspondents in Cuba and El Nuevo Herald contributed to this report.

Source: MiamiHerald.Com

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