First shoots of Haiti’s agricultural renaissance

$10.2 million FAO/IFAD seed scheme yields results

20 August 2009, Rome - A $10.2 million scheme to distribute and multiply quality seeds in Haiti has significantly increased food production in the Caribbean nation providing cheaper food for the population and boosting farmers' incomes.

Requested by the Haitian government, financed by a loan from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and implemented by FAO, the programme was introduced to combat high international food prices.

The situation was made more urgent by a series of deadly tropical storms that hit Haiti exactly a year ago in which farmers lost seeds and crops. With this year’s hurricane season now underway, the programme has also helped boost FAO seed stocks in Haiti so the country will have more quality seeds at hand to distribute should farmers lose their stocks again. 

$5 million worth of beans in one season 

Almost 250 000 smallholder and landless farmers have or will receive adapted quality seeds through the programme, which although only half way completed has already paid for itself many times over.

FAO estimates that the quality bean seeds from Guatamala procured and distributed to poor and vulnerable farmers for the 2008 winter planting season for $300,000, has produced $5 million in bean crops.  

“We are extremely encouraged by the results we are seeing in this programme which, along with favourable weather, has been an important factor in increasing the amount of food available to poor people in Haiti,” said FAO Haiti Representative Ari Toubo Ibrahim.

Hurricanes wash away seeds

Haiti is one of the countries worst hit by rising food prices, which in April 2008 triggered riots in the capital Port-au-Prince. Four successive and devastating hurricanes in August and September 2008 meant the seeds poor farmers had saved were either washed away or eaten because people were so hungry. In any case, often there are no quality seeds available for poor farmers and they have no choice but to plant grain, hoping that some will grow.   

The Haitian Ministry of Agriculture identified the lack of suitable quality seeds as a major obstacle to increasing local food production and reducing dependence on imports susceptible to price fluctuations. 

New and better adapted varieties of seeds are also required to meet the challenges of shifting agro-ecological systems caused by climate change and deforestation.  The government and IFAD chose FAO as a partner because the UN agency has more than ten years experience in seed multiplication in Haiti and a strong emergency programme since 2004. 

Tools and training 

Apart from beans, the project also includes the multiplication of maize, sorghum as well as the propagation of cassava, sweet potato and banana plants. Five hundred tonnes of good quality rice seed produced locally is also to be distributed under the project.

The farmers also receive basic tools and advice or training via written material and radio broadcasts on best cultivation techniques.  The programme initially covers three planting seasons in Haiti — winter 2008 and spring and summer 2009 — and has seed multiplication partners in all of the country’s ten administrative departments ranging from farmers’ associations in hard-to-reach rural areas to a handful of larger peri-urban agri-businesses.

The government would now like to extend the project to the upcoming winter season to build on the programme’s excellent results and to continue support in the aftermath of the soaring food prices. Farmers can not recover their livelihoods in a few months but need more sustained assistance of at least a year.

Agriculture a priority

More than a half of Haitians — between five and six million people — live in rural areas and around 85 percent of the rural population practice some agriculture and farming accounts for around 26 percent of Haiti's economic output, making agriculture by far the country’s biggest employer.

According to Haitian government figures, agricultural production rose by 25 percent in the 2008 spring planting season compared to 2009. The number of food insecure people fell from 2.4 million in April 2008 (just before last year’s food price peak) to 1.9 million in June 2009.

FAO experts say NGO, government and UN schemes to rehabilitate the country’s irrigation channels and roads following last year’s floods and storms have also helped increase agricultural production.

“Reviving agriculture in Haiti is a priority in the fight against hunger and for the development of rural areas where the rate of extreme poverty is three times higher than in urban areas,” said Ibrahim.

“Food production is a pre-requisite to any other economic activities, even tourism, because to bring in tourists and then import food to feed them when more than two million Haitians are still food insecure is a recipe for resentment,” he said.

Fruit trees against hurricanes

When food production includes fruit trees such as mangos, avocados, bananas and coffee agriculture can be part of the reforestation process, as poor people are less likely to cut them down for firewood.

Despite the massive depletion of its natural resources and land degradation due to mismanagement of the land and extreme poverty over the past couple of decade Haiti was formerly an important agricultural producer.

“Haiti still has many excellent agronomists and its farmers have retained the knowledge base to produce food which is why we must keep up the focus on agriculture,” said Ibrahim.  

Photo: ©FAO/Thony Belizaire
Farmers receive bean, maize, sorgum, vegetable and rice seeds; baby banana trees and sweet potato and cassava cuttings