Fourth of a six-part series on Haiti's environmental problems.
GRANMONT, Haiti -- With its rich delta soil and a year-round growing season, Haiti's famous agricultural region seems capable of feeding the entire Caribbean.
But Haiti is a net importer of food, spending about $400 million last year on purchases from abroad. The World Food Programme runs child nutrition and "food for work" operations. And fields in the nation's breadbasket, Artibonite Department, have been periodically swamped by flash floods and mud washed by tropical downpours off barren hillsides.
Farmers in the Granmont agricultural area, just outside Gonaïves, the department capital, say their plight is being ignored by the government and relief agencies focusing on defending urban infrastructure from flooding and strong storms.
"Granmont is the only place now in Gonaïves where you can produce all the food for the town," said Wilson Adeclair, a leader of a local community organization. "This place needs to be protected."
Though Gonaïves -- which was slammed by three devastating hurricanes and a tropical storm last year -- is the focus of extensive engineering aimed at curbing catastrophic flooding, Adeclair and his group have insisted that available aid money also be used to protect Granmont and other farming areas. They got their wish: 200 men and women are now digging a 4-foot-deep trench between the city and farmland aimed at draining floodwaters and protecting crops.
Workers here voice frustration at what they see as a lack of focus by the government and U.N. officials on their region, which produces rice, potatoes, tomatoes, leafy greens, bananas, cassava, peas, corn, cereals, papayas and mangoes.
Phase one of the canal is nearly complete, and the workers say they are confident it will get the job done. But they fear storm infrastructure in the city could send more water to farming areas than they can handle. They are also worried they won't have enough money to take the channel all the way to the sea.
"We are the only ones who are fighting every time to make a kind of presentation about the importance of this place, and sometimes it's very, very difficult for us," Adeclair said.
Haiti was the scene of food riots last year as commodity prices rose to record highs and the cost of imports soared.
Experts say the riots were a consequence of the misguided policies of aid agencies, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have for decades been telling Haiti to focus on exporting textiles and using the cash to purchase cheap food from the United States.
"Whenever they'd go to the World Bank and say, 'We need agriculture development spending,' they would say, 'No, that's not what we're doing,'" said Roger Thurow, co-author of the new book "Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty."
"It was under the whole Washington consensus 'food is cheap' policy that the word basically went out to Haiti," Thurow said in a recent interview. "So what happens in 2008? Prices of rice increase ... all of a sudden they can buy half as much rice, there's shortages in the country, the prices go up more, hunger follows, there's the riots, government falls."
'A long journey'
The 2008 storm season, when a tropical storm and three hurricanes slammed into the country over a period of four weeks, created a full-blown crisis as flooding and mudslides devastated crops. Hunger got so bad in some places that the poorest of the capital's slums literally resorted to eating dirt, in the form of baked clay "cookies."
In the aftermath of the storms, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development organized a $10 million emergency distribution of seeds and plants to get farmers back to work as soon as possible.
After two harvests, the effort has yielded impressive results, FAO said, but that program is scheduled to end in January, and there is no word on whether it will be extended.
At last year's annual FAO meeting, national and international aid agencies vowed they would end their decades-long neglect of food production and prioritize building healthy agricultural industries in the developing world. But the residents of Gonaïves who depend on agriculture say they see no evidence of that new commitment.
The same promises were heard yesterday at the close of this year's FAO conference, regarded by many private nonprofits as a failure. Attendance was poor, and governments rejected FAO's call for $44 billion in annual spending on growing food in the developing world, though trillions have been spent shoring up bank balance sheets.
And on the ground here, people who depend on agriculture are disappointed. "We have seen nothing," said Oubens Dosselie, coordinator for an organization focused on the economic needs of women.
In and around Gonaïves, most foreign donor attention still seems to be focused on post-storm recovery.
Private aid groups are still clearing mud from streets and drainage canals. The U.S. Agency for International Development is financing the replacement of dozens of small bridges wiped out by the storms. The U.N. Development Programme arranged the funds for the Granmont project but only after prodding by the locals.
Many experts agree with Dosselie's bleak assessment. They see little indication that the World Bank, USAID, and Japanese and European aid agencies have shifted their priorities to helping the Third World grow enough food to meet its needs. The World Food Programme, an agency with a long history of feeding people in Haiti, has only recently turned its attention to helping farmers produce crops.
"The rhetoric says it's going to shift. I don't think we've seen clear evidence that that has really started," said Colin Chartres, director of water management at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). "I think it's a long journey."
Focus on Haitian government
The United Nations and local workers say the Haitian government has to step up and pay more attention to food production, but the government has earmarked 6.95 percent of its 2009-2010 budget for agriculture.
"We encourage the government to allocate no less than 12 percent of their budget," said Ari Toubo Ibrahim, FAO's chief of operations in Haiti.
Haiti's agriculture and environment ministers, both facing uncertain futures as the Senate forced a fifth change of government in five years, were unavailable to comment on the country's budget for food production.
Compared to other parts of the Third World, Haiti may have better food security because of the large U.N. presence and the massive interventions of last year, Ibrahim said. The government claims that sthe number of "food insecure" Haitians -- those facing starvation -- dropped from 2.4 million last year to 1.9 million.
But experts say the country's progress could be lost unless the government devotes more resources to building the nation's agricultural industry. It could have an opportunity to start doing that next month, when Haiti hosts a regional conference on food security for Latin American and the Caribbean.
"I think that they should not just host the meeting," Ibrahim said, "but also present a program and spell out their objectives, and maybe make a real commitment to reach those objectives."
Community groups say such a program entails more than just distributing seeds. A comprehensive system of drainage canals is needed to protect cropland from routine flooding. Haiti's roads are in abysmal shape, leaving farmers no means to get their excess produce to markets in good years. Promises to repair roads go unfulfilled, and requests for fertilizers go unanswered.
"Every month, we have a promise for the building of a road," said Adeclair, the community organization leader. "But it never comes."