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Hurricane Sandy exposes Haiti's agriculture and environment woes

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 1 Nov 2012 13:36 GMT
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BOGOTA (AlertNet) – Years of neglect of agriculture and disaster prevention in Haiti, coupled with the government’s failure to protect the environment and stem deforestation, are exacerbating food shortages following Hurricane Sandy, aid agencies say.

Tropical storm Sandy skirted the island but killed at least 52 people in Haiti and destroyed or damaged around 200,000 homes, the government says - the highest death toll in the Caribbean.

Strong winds and torrential rains triggered landslides and severe flooding across the island, washing away livestock and fields of maize, beans, rice, banana and coffee.

“There are definitely going to be food shortages. In some areas, up to 40 percent of crops have been lost. The problem is particularly bad in low-lying areas that have been flooded. This is going to have major consequences on food production and food security,” said Jean-Michel Vigreux, Haiti country director for the charity CARE.

The lack of flood prevention measures in Haiti, such as flood walls and dredged rivers, along with widespread deforestation, have magnified the damage and the number of casualties Hurricane Sandy left in its wake, aid agencies say.

“We can’t keep reacting to emergencies. There needs to be a long-term plan and approach to build resilience to natural disasters in Haiti,” Vigreux said.

DEFORESTATION

Decades of deforestation have left Haiti with less than two percent of its original forest cover, according to the United Nations. This causes soil erosion and reduces the ability of soil to retain water, making Haiti more vulnerable to flooding and landslides. There were few trees to stop the recent heavy rainfall from washing down the bare mountainsides.

“One of the most important things we and other non-governmental organisations have to do is to push the authorities on the environment and make this issue more important,” Prospery Raymond, Christian Aid’s country director for Haiti, told AlertNet.

“Planting more trees, the right kinds of trees, like citrus trees, can provide an income for farmers and also reduce the speed of water running down the mountains,” he said.

Deforestation stems largely from Haiti’s dependency on trees as the main source of fuel. Selling charcoal for cooking also provides an important source of income for many Haitians living in the countryside.  

“It’s important to change the way people are cooking, to reduce the consumption of wood from local tress,” Raymond said.

Along with tackling deforestation, aid agencies are urging the Haitian government to allocate more funds to protect the environment. Just 0.64 percent of the nation’s budget goes to its environment ministry. 

“It’s not just deforestation but (overall) environmental degradation. The problem of watersheds deteriorating, river banks not being well protected and the deterioration of soil quality,” said Amelie Gauthier, Oxfam’s communications officer in Port-au-Prince.

CUMULATIVE IMPACT

A combination of rising food prices, drought in May and July, hurricane Isaac in August and more recently Sandy, has weakened Haiti’s already fragile food supply and left thousands of families too poor to buy enough food.

Farming communities are struggling to get back on their feet and put enough food on the table.

“The cumulative effect of these disasters has meant loss of capital, revenue and livelihoods for many people,” said Gauthier. “The south of Haiti is already food insecure because of the drought and the impacts of tropical storm Isaac. People borrowed money after Isaac to plant seeds but these have been lost following Sandy. So there’s debt and the loss of crops.”

The government and the U.N. are planning an appeal for emergency aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Although 60 percent of Haiti’s active working population live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their food and livelihoods, successive governments have failed to invest in rural development.

Aid agencies say more needs to be done to tackle land tenure issues and soil erosion, and to implement a long-term agricultural policy that helps small farmers improve crop yields and access to loans for seeds and equipment.

Haiti’s highly centralised government, a legacy of the 1957-86 Duvalier dictatorship which focused political power and economic activity on the capital Port-au-Prince, is also hampering rural development.

“80 percent of government officials are in the capital and in the metropolitan area,” said CARE’s Vigreux. “That means there’s not much presence of government outside of the capital and in the countryside.”

 

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