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Haiti farmers in dire straits after Hurricane Sandy
by Staff Writers
Hinche, Haiti (AFP) Dec 21, 2012

At an isolated farm in the town of Papaye in central Haiti, a group of farmers are counting the costs of Hurricane Sandy and trying to decide their next steps. The news from the meeting is grim.

Flooding unleashed by the massive storm killed more than 50 people and left thousands homeless in Haiti, another woe for an impoverished country still struggling to recover from a 2010 earthquake that left more than 200,000 dead.

Sandy also devastated the Caribbean nation's farming sector -- already reeling from a dry spell.

"Haitian farmers were very affected by the drought, and then by the flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy," said Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the head of the Mouvement des Paysans de Papaye, an influential peasant movement.

"Harvests were lost in most parts of the country. And now, there is a real risk of famine."

In the meeting room, crop samples are spread out next to outdated tools -- a machete, a hoe and a shovel surrounded by flickering candles, a scene that farmers readily equate with voodoo rituals.

"It's a peasant ritual to make offerings that include products of the earth," explains Jean-Baptiste, whose group has launched an appeal, backed by a French non-governmental organization, for much-needed seeds to renew crops.

Since Sandy tore across Haiti in October, leaving an estimated $150 million or more in damage to the farm industry alone, certain products are harder to find in Haitian markets and food prices have soared.

Nearly two million Haitians -- 20 percent of the country's population -- are believed to be lacking food.

The government declared a two-month state of emergency following the storm, and launched a national and international "call for solidarity," but the results are hard to measure in the country's fields.

"It's totally useless, farmers who suffered through this got nothing," said Jean-Baptiste.

The agronomist -- Haiti's most well-known and respected peasant leader -- said the country instead needed "widespread distribution of seeds to farmers," adding that "nearly 80 percent of the rural population is going hungry."

The French non-governmental organization Freres des hommes (Brothers of Men) has created a website specifically for the Haiti appeal (www.fdh.org/sandy) and is encouraging supporters to buy seeds online for farmers in need.

"We want all-natural seeds," said Jean-Baptiste, who champions the cause of food independence for Haiti via family farmers who practice agro-ecology to achieve sustainable production.

"We're against the mechanization of farming in Haiti, where peasants work small plots of land. The hoe and the machete -- that's what small-scale farmers need. They don't need tractors," said Jean-Baptiste.

His organization opposes the use of genetically modified or hybrid seeds, which were offered to Haiti by a US agrobusiness giant after the 2010 earthquake.

Instead, Jean-Baptiste backs agricultural reform that would help ensure the security of family farmers. Those farmers in turn would produce enough to feed their families and the local community, while protecting the environment.

"Farmers need loans, technical assistance and better infrastructure," he said.

Other foreign NGOs have sent volunteers to lend a hand in Haiti's fields, and the European Union and other French organizations have financed projects to train agro-ecologists and combat deforestation.

"We are aiming for food independence," Jean-Baptiste said.


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