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Haiti quake is beginning to be felt miles away

Haitian farmers in the countryside struggle to feed the displaced relatives they've taken in. As meager funds dwindle, they wonder how they'll be able to buy seeds for the spring planting.

February 23, 2010|By Ken Ellingwood
  • A busload of Haitians prepares to flee the capital, Port-au-Prince, for the countryside a week after the Jan. 12 earthquake. Already-poor relatives who took in the displaced now wonder how they'll afford the seeds to continue their subsistence farming.
A busload of Haitians prepares to flee the capital, Port-au-Prince, for… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Saint-Marc, Haiti — Even in normal times, Edwin Andre has all he can do to eke out a living from the corn, tomatoes and sweet potatoes he coaxes from an acre plot in northern Haiti. His wife, Roselaine Cius, peddles the produce roadside and cooks rice-and-bean plates from a stick-frame lunch shack to help support their family of eight.

Suddenly, though, eight hungry mouths soared to 18 after siblings and in-laws from earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince fled by rattletrap bus to this sweep of farmland, a two-hour drive from the capital.

The couple's spare, concrete house -- no bigger than an average one-bedroom apartment in the United States -- is packed to bursting. Food once converted to cash goes to feed the homeless loved ones. Money is now so short that the pair doubt they will be able to buy seeds for the crucial spring planting season that is only weeks away.

"I don't see how we will have enough money," said Cius, 40, sweating under a porkpie hat as she ladled rice from a charcoal-heated pot. "There's no way. There's no money."

The effects of the Jan. 12 earthquake that flattened much of Port-au-Prince are rippling powerfully across rural Haiti, the poorest swath of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Villagers are near the breaking point as they try to accommodate tens of thousands of displaced city dwellers just when they would be putting their precious resources into preparing for planting. In desperation, some have resorted to eating their meager seed stocks or killing their chickens and goats to feed the influx, rather than keeping them to sell.

Fertilizer is expensive and seeds for cereal crops are in short supply because of damage to the seaport in the capital and wary buying by wholesalers. Farming areas southwest of Port-au-Prince were also devastated by the 7.0 quake, which ruined whole towns, such as Leogane, near the epicenter, and damaged vital irrigation channels.

Agricultural officials and aid workers worry that while global efforts to help quake victims in Port-au-Prince are hitting their stride, the ripple effect in the countryside threatens to stymie home farming and worsen conditions in areas where most people already scrape by on less than $2 a day. Some experts warn of a quiet agricultural disaster in the making.

Relief workers say only a tiny portion of international aid has been earmarked for rural Haitians, who account for most of the country's 9 million people. Of $23 million sought for farmers as part of an urgent appeal by the United Nations, donor governments have provided only about $2 million for agriculture.

"These communities were already the poorest part of the country. The countryside is extremely poor and they have very few means to cope," said Alexander L. Jones, Haiti emergency-response manager for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. "It is putting a lot of stress on families."

Jones said spot surveys show that the average size of rural families has nearly doubled, from five members to nine.

Agencies are scrambling to import 2 tons of seeds, plus hoes, shovels and wheelbarrows, for the farmers, many of whom lost their hand tools under collapsed homes near Port-au-Prince. The first shipment of 15,000 implements arrived last week. Relief workers are also turning to the Dominican Republic next door to hunt for seed varieties that are also planted in Haiti.

"The planting season is approaching. We've got to deliver these seeds before it starts," said Roberto Borlini, who works for an Italian nonprofit called GVC that plans to distribute seeds and tools to 2,000 families near Petit-Goave, a hard-hit town southwest of the capital.

GVC and at least a couple of dozen other foreign aid agencies, including such major players as CARE, have focused part of their efforts on rural areas. But farmland assistance has been overshadowed by the critical needs in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti's agricultural sector was a basket case even before the quake.

Years of deforestation have denuded much of the countryside, helping to degrade overworked soil that doesn't hold nutrients well and yields food reluctantly.

In a country that grows rice and corn, Haitians get most of their cereals and many other goods from abroad, making them extraordinarily expensive. A chicken can cost $7.

Tropical storms two years ago caused $200 million in damage to food crops. Since the earthquake, the nation's agriculture minister, Joanas Gue, has called on creditor nations to help by forgiving Haitian debt.

In many ways, relief workers say, it's fortunate that so many of the displaced found shelter with relatives. The arrangement provides a smoother way to deliver aid and offers the homeless a healthier alternative to sleeping in the encampments that have popped up in Port-au-Prince.

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