Author: NICOLE WINFIELD | AP
Sunday 14 February 2010
Agriculture Minister Joanas Gue pitched the program Friday in Rome to donors, international banks, UN agencies and aid groups, seeking to win financial support for the government's six-point strategy to bolster food production and create jobs in rural areas for the new arrivals.
The United Nations estimates that 500,000 people — in a country of 9.7 million — have fled Port-au-Prince in the month since the Jan. 12 earthquake and settled in camps or with family in the countryside.
The UN and the Haitian government fear that unless these new arrivals are given jobs, they will strain Haiti's already poverty-stricken farmers and create a new humanitarian crisis, requiring food aid. Even before the quake, three quarters of Haitians lived on less than $2 a day; more than half of the population lived in rural areas.
Gue noted that decades ago, Haiti was self sufficient in agriculture. Now, it imports 60 percent of its food.
“Now that we've had this earthquake, and there has been this vast movement of people from the city to the countryside, you have to see how you can take advantage of this opportunity, this opportunity of a sad event, in order to capitalize on this availability,” Gue told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the meeting.
The government's plan — dubbed a “decentralization strategy” — focuses on absorbing the large influx of migrants from the capital and putting them to work clearing roads so food can get to market, digging irrigation canals and replanting forests.
At the same time, the plan aims to give farmers greater access to seeds and fertilizer, provide them with a rapid supply of animal protein — poultry — and boost local demand for their goods, particularly from groups distributing food aid.
Gue stressed that the government had no plans to settle all the 500,000 Port-au-Prince migrants in the countryside, acknowledging that many will return to the capital once the immediate emergency stabilizes and jobs become available.
But he said a certain number will stay — if there are jobs and basic services built to accommodate them, such as schools, health clinics and sanitation.
Jacques Diouf, the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said the UN supported the government plan and suggested it could be a long-term solution to Haiti's chronic inability to feed itself.
“It depends on what kind of livelihood you give them there,” he said. “I think they will stay, as long as their income will be better and conditions of life will be better in comparison to what they had in the cities.” Cheryl Mills, counselor to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said investment in agriculture is key to tackling Haiti's poverty.
“If we can put people to work in agriculture, raise their incomes, strengthen their markets and support them to grow and buy nutritious food, we will not only enable this decentralization strategy, we will provide real incentives for Haitians to live and work in areas of the country, like the north and west, that are less vulnerable to natural disasters,” Mills said.
While aid workers from foreign governments and private organizations rushed to feed the disaster's survivors and homeless in the days after the quake struck, Haiti is now concerned about how to feed its people in the medium- and long-term.
Diouf said the next major priority is to support the spring planting season, which begins in March, and accounts for more than 60 percent of Haiti's food production. The FAO and WFP have already begun distributing seeds, fertilizer and tools to Haitian farmers.
“If sown now, vegetable seeds will in only three months provide families and their communities with supplies of nutritious food for several months,” he said. “If we don't do it, the risk is that we may even increase the risk of people not getting adequate access to food.” Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, warned that if Haiti misses the spring harvest, Haiti's food situation will deteriorate sharply.
“We are not out of the woods on the emergency. The rain started yesterday. The potential for mudslides, the potential for hurricane season, to affect areas already hit” are enormous, Sheeran said.
Hurricane season officially begins June 1.