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#868: Fields of Despair... (fwd)


Fields of Despair... Despite Aid Programs, Haiti's Rural Areas Remain
Mired in  Poverty_____ By Serge F. Kovaleski Washington Post Foreign
Service Thursday, November 4, 1999; Page A25 

DOMOND, Haiti?This desolate farming town in Haiti's central plateau sits
on the banks of the Artibonite River, the nation's largest waterway and
an ideal source for irrigating fields of rice and black beans. And
nature has been working in Domond's favor over the last several years,
dumping bountiful rains across a normally arid region. But all the water
remains frustratingly elusive to farmers like Pierre Valcin.They lack
the knowledge and equipment to capture the rain on their hillside
 plots or tap the river to irrigate low-lying areas to grow enough cash
crops  and ease the grinding poverty in which they live. "You could say
we are drowning without water," Valcin, 67, recently lamented.       
The hardships endured by Domond are felt in countless other villages
across this predominantly agrarian country of 7.6 million people,
disappointing hopes   that were raised when an international contingent
led by 20,000 troops, mostly Americans, arrived here five years ago to
remove a military  dictatorship and reinstate Haiti's first
democratically elected president.

 The intervention brought with it the promise of rural development and a
better life for the more than 5 million inhabitants who reside in
isolated squalor throughout the countryside, the poorest segment of the
poorest nation  in the Western Hemisphere. But a protracted political
crisis disrupting the flow of badly needed foreign assistance, coupled
with the magnitude of the social, economic and environmental problems
that have long plagued Haiti's farmers, have proven to be overwhelming
obstacles. "There has been no agricultural progress here. It has been
very degrading for us," said Jean-Louis Desir, a Domond church official.
"This place has no future."

The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) has spent more than
$300 million over the last five years on rural initiatives including
vaccinations  for children, distribution of contraceptives, school food
projects, small loans  for entrepreneurs, development of local courts
and a hillside agricultural program that last year boosted very low
incomes for about 166,000 farmers by 17 percent. But, said AID's
director in Haiti, Phyllis Forbes, "All the improvements are resting on
a feather and they could be blown away with a strong wind." She       
added, "There are so many needs in this country that we have had to
spread  our assistance thinly over many sectors. . . . It will take
Haiti a generation to  create a population that can meet the challenges
of a modern economy."  Amid the misery has come some progress. Haiti's
agricultural sector grew  by 2.1 percent in 1998; it was expected to
expand by 4 percent had Haiti not suffered the ravages of Hurricane
George last year. AID has seen significant results in a number of its
rural initiatives, which  have included teaching Haiti's poorest farmers
environmentally sound  agricultural practices such as fruit tree
grafting and cultivating high value export crops such as cocoa, coffee,
mangoes and manioc.
 Farmers also planted or improved through grafting 6.8 million trees
last year. Meanwhile, 200 miles of roads have been built around the
countryside and others have been repaired as part of an effort to
improve the flow of commerce. But AID and other foreign donors point out
that the assistance specifically designated for improving agriculture
and addressing environmental  devastation has been severely inadequate.
"The agricultural and  environmental sectors are woefully underfunded by
all donors, including  USAID," the agency stated in an annual report on
Haiti earlier this year. The report noted that both sectors received a
total of 15 percent of donor disbursements in 1998, with only 5 percent
going directly to agriculture. But  officials said there are other
priorities for revitalizing Haiti and that they indirectly have a
bearing on agricultural development.One of the problems confronting
Haitian farmers is the fact that land reform, which President Rene
Preval has said is a top priority, remains largely  unresolved. Peasants
in many rural areas have routinely clashed with landowners who obtained
or increased holdings by driving peasants off property during the three
decades of dictatorship under the Duvalier family.The Preval government
has distributed some small parcels to peasants, largely in the
Artibonite River Valley. But disputes over property titles are        
numerous.  Most rural Haitians have access to land but their holdings
are not large or fertile enough to support farming. Aid experts say
families need a minimum of just over six acres to make a living from
agriculture, but the vast majority  of farms are about three acres, and
even those properties are often carved  up into smaller plots.         
Furthermore, outdated legal restrictions on the use of land as
collateral and  an arduous land titling process have made it almost
impossible for farmers with property to obtain mortgages to modernize or
expand in a country that   produces only 50 percent of its food
requirements. Another serious problem has been the decrepit condition of
most roads in the countryside and the crude methods of transportation
that farmers must rely on to get their products to market. It is
estimated that up to 30 percent of grain harvests is lost while being
transported and more than 40 percent of fruits and vegetables either are
damaged or fall off trucks.Overall, 75 percent of rural Haitian families
live below the poverty line, which experts define as having to spend
more than three-quarters of their  income for each member to eat at
least 2,250 calories a day.Colossal deforestation also has been a major
obstacle to developing more fruitful agriculture, as increasing numbers
of farmers seek alternative  sources of income by chopping down trees to
meet the demand for construction supplies and charcoal for cooking.
Consequently, only 1.5 percent of Haiti's natural forest remains intact.
Officials estimate that 15,000 acres of topsoil are washed away by rain
each year because of the dearth of  natural buffers once provided by
trees. Most of the cultivated land in this mountainous nation is on
steep hillsides that have been eroded by rainfall. Making matters worse,
only about 19 percent of Haiti's land can be irrigated from rivers,
lakes or underground  water supplies, but less than half of that
actually is irrigated. In Domond, a town of creaky shacks and a few
crumbling brick buildings 25 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, Tiyoute
Vertus pointed to the orange streaks in her granddaughter's hair, a
symptom of vitamin deficiency and a  sign of their struggle to survive
on a small piece of land where they grow okra and yams. Earlier this
year, Vertus, who appeared to be in her early fifties, started selling
wood and making straw hats and brooms to provide  more food for herself
and the young child. 
 "Life is painful, but we are living under the protection of God.
Otherwise, I  think we would be dead because no one else seems to know
we exist out here," she said. Travails like these have driven large
numbers of people to flock to the cities in search of greater
opportunities, creating overcrowding problems and   straining limited
resources.  In the chaotic capital of Port-au-Prince, the population has
been ballooning at a rate of 120,000 people a year and currently stands
at about 2.5 million. Several critical indicators show that living
conditions in the city are only slightly better than in the countryside.
For instance, chronic malnutrition in  children under 5 is 20 percent in
the metropolitan area, compared with 35 percent in rural zones.

Haiti at a Glance

 Population:   * 7.6 million

 Projected population 2025: 11.4 million

 * Rural: 64%

 Quality of life
 * Life expectancy: 51 years for men; 56 for women

 * Illiteracy: 52% for men; 57% for women

 * Income: $410 a year per person

 * Population below national poverty line: 65% total; 81% in rural

 * Population with access to safe water: 39%

 * Population with access to sanitation: 26%


* Gross domestic product: $2.8 billion; 31% from agriculture, 

* 20% from industry, 48% from services.

SOURCE: World Bank