PORT-AU-PRINCE—The earthquake that struck southern Haiti in August 2021, followed two days later by a devastating tropical storm, once again revealed the fragility of our environment and the precarious conditions of our people. These twin disasters occurred amid a political vacuum, constitutional and judicial imbroglio, economic collapse, and ongoing clashes between gangs that control much of our national territory. The current makeshift government had little or no capacity to intervene, leaving the field open to donors and international agencies which, until now, have failed to make much of a difference. A few local organizations were able to react quickly, but for the most part the post-earthquake situation left people unable to fend for themselves.
Leaders gathered at the Summit of the Americas in June are faced with fundamental questions: what to do with Haiti? Should the international community continue to inject millions of aid dollars that we know will be mis-spent or wasted? Or turn your back and lose hope?
There is another way.
This path begins with a detour through history and an acknowledgment of some of our most painful legacies. Shortly after the U.S. military occupation of Haiti began in 1915, the Marines reintroduced the chore, a policy reminiscent of slavery with roots in the 19th century, which forced citizens to work without compensation on infrastructure and other projects. These outside rulers viewed local peasants and smallholder farmers as backward and unfit for civilization, and made the racist choice to use their bodies as cheap, unskilled labor in Haiti and the region. The first major forced migration of Haitians, mostly peasants, was organized in the 1920s for the benefit of American sugar companies in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. We see the consequences to this day, in the visceral rejection of black Haitian migrants on American shores and at American borders, including the horrific scenes of violence against our people in 2021 under a highway bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
This context highlights the many factors conspiring against Haitians in rural areas as they fought for freedom and independence. In his book Taking Haiti, military occupation and the culture of imperialism, 1915-1940, the American researcher Mary Renda shows her deep understanding: “Haitian peasants had struggled to establish a peasant economy and to resist the forces that were pushing them towards wage labor on the plantations. Picking coffee and growing food for themselves and for market in their own garden plots offered greater control over their lives than plantation agriculture allowed. … They worked body and soul for economic independence.
In other words, the Haitian peasants of today are the descendants of a population of former slaves who fought for the independence of the country, but who were marginalized soon after for refusing to return to the system of plantation and work for starvation wages. The hard truth is that this legacy has never been taken into account in public policies or international agendas.
The agricultural sector in Haiti is made up of approximately 1 million small-scale farmers, both men and women, working on small plots of around 2.5 acres with little more than the colonial-era hoe. There are also some young entrepreneurs who have found niche markets in crops such as cocoa, coffee, vetiver and other essential oils, and some products for internal consumption. There are a very limited number of agro-industrial enterprises on plots of around 100 acres of land. They all work on a variety of products, but productivity remains low. The value added to the economy created by the agricultural sector is around 20-25%. There are three agricultural campaigns and in high season they can mobilize up to 5 million people, representing 60% of employment.
The sector’s contribution to GDP is about $76 million per year and has barely fluctuated since 2014. Persistent constraints limit its growth and the well-being of smallholder farmers and their families. These include lack of long-term investment, lack of agricultural and rural infrastructure, inadequate technological means, climate change and its effects on the environment, etc. It all boils down to the historical abandonment of this productive primary sector by the public sector and international agencies.
No money for small farmers
A 2019 study by USAID clearly shows how small farmers in Haiti are not included in the traditional financial and economic mechanisms that could lead to their growth. The USAID report states that “commercial banks and development finance institutions use the incentives provided by the BRH (the central bank of Haiti) to lend to well-established processors of agricultural products. In September 2018, commercial banks’ loans to the primary sector of the economy represented 0.51% of their total loan portfolio. In March 2019, that number jumped to 0.79%, which is a jump of 55%. It is believed that this increase is mainly due to funds lent by the micro-finance branches of commercial banks and companies exporting agricultural products.
The report continues: “Farmers, on the other hand, have very few options apart from obtaining loans from the microfinance sector at high interest rates or advances from market intermediaries and transformers. A survey of the microfinance sector in Haiti published in 2018 shows that only a small proportion of their loan portfolio, 14%, went into production.
This helps explain why Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere.
Yet, despite this grim picture, there is potential for food production that can have a positive impact on food insecurity. There are pockets of hope that must be maintained so that production can grow to much higher levels and improve the overall Haitian economy. The urgency today is not for short-term projects that can keep smallholder families in precarious conditions. Instead, we should support much longer-term investments, in local seed production for example (seed is largely imported from the US), and across specific sector value chains. added value, which can be very important for food production and niche exports.
There are risks, of course, but why should the small subsistence farmer be the only one to bear the consequences? Why not also bet on local organizations which have a proximity and experience with the farmers and which can ensure that the funds are well used and accounted for? In my personal experience, the smallholder farming sector is culturally resilient, capable of extraordinary courage, inventiveness and endurance when allowed and encouraged to produce for themselves and their families.
Rather than launching large-scale but short-term projects where international intermediaries absorb a large part of the funds, rural Haiti needs small-scale investments that are sustained over a long period with encouragement for local markets. , school canteens and small businesses. full-scale touring outfits. There are private and non-profit Haitian relays on the ground capable of ensuring an attentive interface with smallholder farmers, organizations that are sensitive to an appropriate rate of growth.
At the more institutional level, any support that can help Haitian universities develop their scientific capacities to create the necessary links with the agricultural sector and help farmers develop their sanitary and phytosanitary standards is also a matter of concern in times of climate change. Haitian universities are beginning to partner with American and Latin American universities to improve research capabilities and expand support to rural communities. It’s a promising trend.
A new start
We are no longer in the era of the “big stick”, the gunboat, the dollar and the missionary diplomacy advocated by successive American presidents at the beginning of the 20th century to establish their hegemony in the Western hemisphere. However, one cannot help wondering why the political and economic choices made throughout history seem to this day to be always detrimental to our country.
And more persistently, why in a small country like Haiti is it still not possible to educate, to create decent jobs, to recognize the fundamental role of smallholder farmers, men and women, in the economy and to invest with them to fight food insecurity and help mitigate natural disasters?
It’s a chance to invest in areas that really matter, that can open up prospects for millions of young men and women who could finally project themselves into the future of the country.
Paradoxically, disasters also provide opportunities. What happened in southern Haiti is a revelation. Science continues to warn us that it could happen anywhere else in the country with more serious consequences, more suffering and probably more migration.
It’s time to change our view of our territory, our population, our habitat. We need to build scientific capacity to educate, empower and bridge the social divide that has for too long marginalized millions of men and women.
This is the real bold political agenda for the next generation that I dream of for our country.
Keywords: Haiti, Summit of the Americas
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its editors.