Haiti has lost its soil and the means to feed itself.
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
National Geographic Contributing Writer
Published: September 2008
Rice makes up 20 percent of the typical Haitian’s diet, and that percentage is
growing. In 1981 Haiti imported 18,000 tons of rice. Now the country imports
close to 400,000 tons annually. Less than a quarter is homegrown.
“Tè a fatige,” said 70 percent of Haitian farmers in a recent survey when asked
about the major agricultural problems they faced. “The earth is tired.”
And no wonder. Virtually since 1492, when Columbus first set foot on the
heavily forested island of Hispaniola, the mountainous nation has shed both
topsoil and blood-first to the Spanish, who planted sugar, then to the French,
who cut down the forests to make room for lucrative coffee, indigo, and
tobacco. Even after Haitian slaves revolted in 1804 and threw off the yoke of
colonialism, France collected 93 million francs in restitution from its former
colony-much of it in timber. Soon after independence, upper-class speculators
and planters pushed the peasant classes out of the few fertile valleys and into
the steep, forested rural areas, where their shrinking, intensively cultivated
plots of maize, beans, and cassava have combined with a growing
fuelwood-charcoal industry to exacerbate deforestation and soil loss. Today
less than 4 percent of Haiti’s forests remain, and in many places the soil has
eroded right down to the bedrock. From 1991 to 2002, food production per capita
actually fell 30 percent.
So what do you do if you live in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,
and the price of the primary carbohydrate-“Miami rice” from the U.S.-doubles?
Mostly, you go hungry and watch your children do the same.
But there is more at stake than simply the ability of Haitian soil to feed a
starving nation. Food-importing nations around the world also are suffering as
the prices of staples skyrocket, raising critical questions about the goals of
agricultural-assistance programs that over the past few decades have focused
more on reducing tariffs and growing crops for export than on helping poor
nations feed themselves.
That’s as it should be, officials say. “Food self-sufficiency is not
necessarily the goal,” says Beth Cypser, deputy director of the U.S. Agency for
International Development mission in Haiti. “Right now there is food in Haiti.
It’s just the price is out of reach. If it makes sense economically for them to
sell mangoes and import rice, then that’s what they should do.”
The problem, says ecologist and activist Sasha Kramer, is that these days
Haitian farmers can’t sell enough mangoes to afford imported rice. To boost
food production, Kramer and colleagues founded Sustainable Organic Integrated
Livelihoods (SOIL), a nonprofit group that builds composting toilets in rural
communities to get much needed organic matter and fertility back into fields.
“With the current hunger crisis, it’s very clear,” says Kramer, an adjunct
professor at the University of Miami. “If Haitians had more local production,
they would not be so vulnerable to imported food prices.”
Until then Haiti remains a poignant lesson in what soil scientists have
preached for years: As a nation’s soil goes, so goes the nation.