THOMONDE, Haiti -- This community once bustled with farmers growing and selling corn, sugar cane, coffee, mangoes and potatoes.
Patrick Belizaire, 37, who returned here in 2008 to start a farm cooperative after living with his family in Boston for more than two decades, was shocked by what he found. He saw half the fertile fields lying fallow, land that his family farmed for generations overrun by grasses.
"They went from growing everything to buying everything, and that land sits there," Belizaire said in a recent interview. "This field here used to be full. There was always something each season."
The farm economy here and elsewhere in rural Haiti has been in a 20-year nose dive. A nation that once easily fed itself has become dependent on imports and food aid for 75 percent of its needs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Haitian government has long ignored its rural areas, leaving once-vital roads to turn into something resembling parched riverbeds. Farmers here say transportation is so difficult and costly that they long ago stopped shipping produce to the capital, Port-au-Prince, which is about 50 miles away to the southwest. Meanwhile, farms often flood as tropical downpours wash mud waves from deforested hillsides into cultivated fields.
"They don't farm half the amount they used to farm, and if you drive you can see it," Belizaire said. "You see field after field empty."
The international community has also had a major role in destroying Haitian agriculture. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have been threatening for years to cut off financing if the Haitian government pays for irrigation, fertilizers or equipment for its poor farmers. And in 1995, as a condition for restoring President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after he was ousted by a military coup, the United States forced Haiti to adopt the lowest food import tariffs in the hemisphere, to provide U.S. farmers another market. A flood of cheap, heavily subsidized U.S. rice eventually pushed domestic varieties from the marketplace, and Haitian landowners fired thousands of workers.
The result: "a disinvestment in agriculture," said Nigel Fisher, a Canadian official with UNICEF sent to Haiti to help plan the nation's recovery after the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake. "Today," he said, "Haiti is importing many of the foods that it produced 20 years ago."
With the rural economy in tatters, people fled to cities, mostly to Port-au-Prince, filling hillside shanties that crumbled in the powerful quake that killed an estimated 230,000 Haitians. Today, the streets of Thomonde are filled once again, not with farmers, but rather with some of the 500,000 people that returned to rural areas from the devastated capital.
Haitian authorities and U.N. officials, including Fisher, are desperately trying to keep those half-million displaced from returning to Port-au-Prince. Their goal is to rebuild Port-au-Prince -- which is located on a fault line and is prone to another earthquake -- to be much smaller and more sustainable than it was. The "rebuild small" strategy is reminiscent of that tried in flood-prone New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But unemployment in rural Haiti stood at 80 percent before the quake, so officials are unsure of how to convince the displaced to stay away from the cities.
"Step one, how can you get massive employment in the rural areas?" Fisher said. "So cash-for-work programs for tree planting, for building of dams, for building of rural roads, which will allow money to come into the rural household while at the same time you're starting to regenerate the environment."
Edmond Mulet, the new chief of U.N. operations in Haiti, envisions factories being moved from the city to the countryside, or new foreign investment boosting employment here. Farming is out of the question, he insists, as the land is already spoken for, so a service-oriented economy must be built instead.
But Haiti's farmers are tired of being ignored and would like to put newcomers to work growing food. They welcome plans to mobilize new labor for reforestation and road building -- after decades of promises, the Inter-American Development Bank is finally connecting Thomonde to Port-au-Prince with a new paved highway -- but farmers point out they need extra hands as badly as they need roads, seeds and fertilizers.
"They would be a huge advantage ... because what would take a hundred days to do we could do it in three," said Evonne Balouse, who last year lost his sugar-cane crop because he had no labor to help get it out of his field.
Wanted: farm labor
Belizaire and Jean Velarus, another Boston resident of Haitian descent, say refugees from the city could be easily integrated into the farming economy.
"There was a lot of land just sitting, and it was obvious that there was a great deal of potential," said Velarus, 36, describing the scene when he and Belizaire arrived after hurricanes pounded the region in 2008. Those storms, experts say, destroyed as much as 80 percent of Haiti's crops.
Belizaire and Velarus returned to Haiti to organize a konbit, or farming cooperative, a traditional system that kept Haitians employed and self-reliant for more than a century before international aid policies turned hostile to Third World agriculture. The konbit system is a model that could be replicated elsewhere, even for landless peasants, they say.
More than 20 farmers here share land and labor. About 67 acres is gradually being put to use, including tracts untouched for decades.
The nonprofit that Belizaire, Velarus and others have started, the Cooperative Farm Initiative for Haiti, has delivered a tractor to this community, reducing three days' work to three hours. Small irrigation projects are starting, helping boost yields tenfold and ending the over-reliance on seasonal rains. All of this work is being financed out of pocket or through small donations.
In exchange for their labor, the co-op members split 50 percent of the crop. Twenty-five percent of the crop is diverted to seed banking, and the rest donated to poor families. A variety of crops are involved, including sugar cane, corn, congo beans, bananas and sweet potatoes. The most essential ingredient, water, is abundant here but has not been tapped sufficiently.
"Water management of all types, whether it's irrigation, wells or reservoirs," is needed, Velarus said. "Last year, many farmers lost half their crops because the rains came all at once, and then dried up and didn't come again."
Haiti's farmers need relatively little in the way of inputs to dramatically boost production, they say. Simple, steady irrigation, a small tractor, and small quantities of fertilizers can dramatically increase yields. But what is needed most is labor. There were so few able hands here that last year the cooperative had to recruit workers from a neighboring town to help plant seeds.
Some in the government and international community have expressed an interest in encouraging Haitian farmers to organize themselves into co-ops along the lines of this one. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is working with what is left of the country's Ministry of Agriculture to explore options. But most aid workers dismiss any suggestion that displaced people could be put to work in agriculture, aside from perhaps building irrigation projects and new roadways.
"Those who went back to the rural areas, I don't expect them to go back to farming," said Francois Batalingaya, a humanitarian official with World Vision. "Our wish is to provide them with services, to provide them with health, education, food, at the same time create economic opportunities in general in the rural areas. We need some kind of income-generation activities."
This type of talk is deeply frustrating to the Haitians who stayed on the farms. Here, cooperative members showed dismay when told that the international community wants to put displaced city dwellers to work making T-shirts and jeans instead of growing food. They reject notions that incorporating new workers into the farm economy will inevitably lead to conflict.
"The only time we have frustration is when we can't get help," said Delivoix Velarus, a member of the co-op. "But when the help is there, we are extremely happy about it. We would be extremely happy and would welcome them with open arms."
Delivoix Velarus, Balouse and other co-op members say land ownership is not an issue. They say they would be ecstatic to hear former Port-au-Prince residents express interest in becoming farmers. In exchange for their help in the fields, the co-op members say, land could be found for them to build houses. Experienced farmers would work alongside newcomers to teach them everything they need to know. Crops would be shared according to how much labor is put in, providing food for subsistence or for nearby markets.
Agencies focus on food aid
Relief agencies are mobilizing to help the country grow more food, mindful of the fact that Haiti cannot rely on handouts forever.
FAO is asking for permission to divert $4 million to grow more food in Artibonite department -- Haiti's principal food production area -- from a $13 million grant by the European Commission, in response to the emergency the quake created. They say the program would yield 4,500 metric tons of rice, 850 tons of beans and 1,700 tons of sorghum.
But thus far, most indicators show development agencies continue to prioritize food aid instead of food production, in Haiti and other needy nations.
In its most recent budget request, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) proposed spending $1.2 billion globally on helping poor farmers grow more food, while asking Congress for $4.2 billion for food aid, almost all of which will be spent on purchases from American farmers. Most recently, USAID was helping agriculture officials boost Haiti's production of mangoes -- for export to the United States.
With food prices rising sharply in the wake of the quake, agencies are boosting food aid. The quake-affected areas are now nearly completely covered by food distribution efforts, and aid disbursement will shift in weeks ahead to rural areas, particularly to the food-growing regions of Centre and Artibonite departments.
World Vision, USAID and the United Nations all insist that the coming rush of free food won't compete with local farmers but will instead help feed populations that the rural communities cannot support. Over time, the World Food Programme promises to purchase more food aid locally as a means to promote Haiti's agricultural economy and restore its broken links to urban markets.
WFP had tentatively begun such a program in late 2009, but the earthquake forced changes. The agency and nongovernmental organizations made some local food purchases in the days following the disaster, but they admit that all of their purchases involved U.S. rice stored in storehouses that survived the quake.
As authorities plan for Haiti's revival, members of the co-op here are hoping that officials overseeing the plan will change their vision of what displaced city dwellers should do for a living in their new homes.
"We feel that the co-op model also gives them the access to that, to learn more about the agricultural piece of society and how important it is," Jean Velarus said.
Belizaire, having seen firsthand how his old hometown turned from food abundance to scarcity, is emphatic that the opportunity should be seized, utilizing the massive influx of people to help Haiti grow its own food.
"This town is full of people," Belizaire said. "We have tons of people who can help with the cooperative now."