- Haiti is facing a political and economic crisis: Functional governance that serves the interests of Haiti’s people is largely nonexistent.
- In this commentary, Cantave Jean-Baptiste, Director of Partenariat pour le Développement Local (PDL), and Steve Brescia, Executive Director of Groundswell International, argue that replacing Haiti’s extractive agricultural and economic model with one that regenerates rural communities and landscapes and promotes food sovereignty is a potential solution to problems that plague Haitians.
- Through a regenerative model of agricultural and rural development, Haiti could become “a positive example of how some of the most marginalized smallholder farmers in the world can replace the longstanding model of extractive agriculture with one that continuously regenerates their land, food production, rural economies, and dignity.”
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Haiti is facing a profound political and economic crisis. Functional governance that serves the interests of Haiti’s people is largely nonexistent. One of the necessities to overcome this crisis is transitioning from the extractive environmental and economic model that has long plagued the country to one that is regenerative and good for Haitians and their environment.
In July of 2021 President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, and the current Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, is unelected. In fact, Haiti now has no elected government officials at local or national levels since the terms of 10 Senators expired on January 10, 2023. Armed gangs control over half of the neighborhoods and streets in Port-au-Prince, and have significant influence outside of the capital as well. They are inter-connected with many police and politicians. Haiti’s electoral council is not currently able to organize elections, and the conditions for safe voting would not exist if they did. Haiti is already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and the poverty and food crisis is growing. In 2022, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) ranked Haiti in the 10 worst hunger crises in the world, with 4.3 million (over 37% of the population) in need of immediate food assistance.
International attention to Haiti typically rises when internal events and turmoil threaten to spill over and affect other nations – whether in the form of the ‘dangerous example’ of a successful slave revolt that established the independent nation in 1804; the flow of boat people and refugees to the US and other countries in recent decades; or humanitarian crises so severe that they shock our collective conscience and call out for a response. An example of the latter was the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the country in January of 2010, crumbling inadequate housing and infrastructure in the coastal capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, killing over 250,000 people, and drawing global attention and support. Though there have been more powerful earthquakes around the world before and since, the conditions for that level of death and destruction were created by many decades of corrupt governance, weak institutions, and exploitative international relations.
Haiti’s challenges of course have deep roots. A brutal history of plantation slavery and colonialism installed an extractive agricultural, environmental, and economic model, which continues to shape the country today. Haiti’s economy has historically been dependent on agriculture. Though the rural population in Haiti is declining (from 80% in 1970 to 42% in 2021), approximately one million households are still involved with smallholder, peasant farming, and about 30% of Haiti’s workforce depends on agriculture. Just as Haitian slaves and their descendants have been brutally exploited for 500 years, so too has their environment been stripped. Their once lush forests and mountain sides have been gradually turned into barren slopes. As the living soil has eroded down to the coasts and out to sea over many decades, smallholder farmers who depend on that soil have migrated with it.
Is there any hope for changing this bleak trajectory? We believe the answer is yes. An essential step is replacing the extractive agricultural and economic model with one that regenerates rural communities and landscapes and promotes food sovereignty. The greatest resources available to achieve that are Haiti’s tenacious rural population and its land. While such a transition is not a short-term fix to reestablish the rule of law, it is necessary to build the foundation for a healthier society and democracy.
What evidence is there that such a transition can be accomplished? “Agroecological farming in Haiti: A poverty crisis solution,” documents a recently completed external evaluation by the agencies Altus Impact, based in Switzerland, and the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative, based in Bonn, Germany. Applying an environmental economics lens, the evaluation compared the ‘land use budgets’ (the value of all production, less all inputs and costs) of agroecological versus conventional farmers. Evaluators surveyed over 330 smallholder farming households, sampled from three communal sections in northern Haiti.
They were assessing an agroecological approach that our organizations have been collaborating to support since 2009, working with 14 peasant associations in the northern part of Haiti’s Central Plateau, with about 9,900 farmers adopting agroecological practices, improving the lives of over 35,000 people. The program strengthens the agency of organized farmers’ groups, who experiment with natural farming solutions instead of using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; conserve and improve soil fertility; diversify farm plots; and manage common goods together such as savings and credit, seed banks, and grain reserves. Peasant associations coordinate successful agroecological farmers to spread effective practices to others through the power of their example and farmer-to-farmer teaching, and provide complementary supports, creating a system of farmer-centered agricultural innovation and extension where little state support exists.
The results of the evaluation tell a story:
- For farmers evaluated, the average agroecological farmer has a net-crop income that is double that of the average conventional farmer.
- When controlling for spending on inputs and labor, agroecological farmers earned $437 higher net income per hectare per year in comparison to conventional farmers.
- Farmers evaluated cultivate an average of 1.6 hectares of land. Given scarce resources and labor, they typically use agroecological strategies on 1/3rd of their land. If these farmers had the support to extend this approach to the other 2/3 of their farm plots, and assuming no significant constraints to doing so, their average annual net income could increase by up to US$700.
- These are significant livelihood improvements in a country with a per capita GDP of $1,790, and where and over 30% of the population lives in extreme poverty (incomes of less than US $2.15/day or US $785/year).
- The study also cross-referenced satellite data, which indicated that agroecological farms maintained greater green cover and water retention, even in conditions of drought.
- In addition to the intrinsic economic, food security, soil fertility and climate resilience benefits, regenerated and diversified farmland also sequesters carbon to mitigate climate change.
If other farmers receive the kind of extension and support services to increase their land productivity that peasant association members receive, the potential future gains are very significant. While it is difficult to make exact economic projections, scaling this approach to the rest of Haiti’s one million smallholder farmers would result in a significant economic infusion into rural economies. A simple mathematical calculation indicates it could be as high as US$700 million annually. Perhaps that projection is exaggerated, as the equilibrium effect on prices (more production and supply leading to reduced prices), as well as the distribution and conditions of smallholders plots in different parts of the country, might lower that total number. On the other hand, it could also greatly underestimate the economic and social potential. Studies indicate that the multiplier effect resulting from spending and circulating money locally, instead of on external inputs, goods and services, results in three times as much local revenue, income, and employment (48% in comparison to 14%). Circular economies can have catalytic impacts in comparison to value chains that are extractive.
There is a pathway to creating a regenerative model of agricultural and rural development in Haiti that can replace the extractive model that has long afflicted the country. The evidence is clear. Importantly, the benefits would largely flow to, and be created by, the lowest income sectors of Haiti’s population – rural peasant communities. This is locally led, ground-up development. NGOs could provide some training and support, and enabling policies could be put in place. Other farmers’ and civil society organizations in Haiti are pursuing similar approaches, and a nascent agroecology movement can be strengthened.
The Biden administration has requested just under $275 million in US foreign assistance to Haiti in 2023, with about $245 million of that amount focused on disaster relief, education, health, food security and basic human needs, and the rest on narcotics control, law enforcement and military training. Typically, such development funds are heavily focused on short term solutions such as the distribution of imported, emergency food aid. If instead over the next five to ten years funds were invested in ground-up and farmer-centered programs to expand agroecological farming, this could allow rural Haitians to regenerate their degraded farmland, become food secure, and generate billions for local economies. They could help build the foundation for a healthier and more democratic society. This would be a far better return on investment for foreign assistance.
Events in Haiti might again come to the attention of other nations, but this time as a positive example of how some of the most marginalized smallholder farmers in the world can replace the longstanding model of extractive agriculture with one that continuously regenerates their land, food production, rural economies, and dignity.
Cantave Jean-Baptiste is the Director of Partenariat pour le Développement Local (PDL) in Haiti and Steve Brescia is the Executive Director of Groundswell International in Washington, DC.
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