Can Haiti rebuild a food system broken by disaster, historical injustice, and neglect?
Hunger was never far away when Angeline Annesteus was growing up. The daughter of subsistence farmers in Bercy, southern Haiti, she remembers going for days without much food.
That was more than 30 years ago. Food insecurity is even more pressing now. Around 4.3 million people, more than one in three Haitians, currently need urgent food assistance – a still-worsening situation stoked by years of political instability, natural disasters, government neglect, and trade policies that undermine agricultural production.
“The socio-economic conditions have not improved, but deteriorated,” said Annesteus, who is now the country director for ActionAid, an international NGO that is helping Haitian women learn how to grow and sell food, purchase land, and mitigate the effects of climate change.
One of Haiti’s main food-producing regions, the southern Tiburon Peninsula where Annesteus grew up has been battered by a string of recent disasters. First came Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, when more than $500 million of damage was done to Haiti’s agricultural sector. Then, on 14 August 2021, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed 2,200 people, injured 12,000 more, and ruined roads, key infrastructure, and thousands of homes. It was followed two days later by Tropical Storm Grace. Most recently, a less powerful earthquake struck the same region on 26 January, killing two people and damaging 200 houses.
As well as wiping out crops and damaging irrigation systems, the earthquakes and storms destroyed markets, storage facilities, and food processing plants – hits the agricultural sector could ill afford, especially as much of the maize production comes from the verdant south.
Compounding the hardship are gang violence – which has escalated in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince, since President Jovenel Moïse’s July assasination – and hyperinflation that has put even the most basic produce out of reach for many: The Caribbean country was recently ranked in the world’s worst 10 hunger crises.
Experts say security must improve for Haiti’s immediate food needs to be met: The risk of kidnap and violence has disrupted some aid operations. But according to more than a dozen analysts, economists, aid workers, and farmers interviewed by The New Humanitarian for this story, fixing Haiti’s broken food system in the longer term will require better governance, policies that don’t undermine local food production, and sustained support from donors.
“The donor community, and all [of] these humanitarian and development actors have a huge role to play [to address hunger in Haiti],” Melinda Miles, who co-founded the Haiti Response Coalition in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that killed between 100,000 and 300,000 Haitians, told The New Humanitarian. “They need to fund Haitian solutions, and Haitian solutions will be climate-smart, like traditional agriculture.”
Haitian farmers had historically planted a variety of crops that could sustain them if one crop failed, but that changed during the US occupation in the early 20th century when the focus switched to funding large plantations of maize, sugar, and other crops, Miles explained.
Even when there is produce now – domestic production of staple crops has been in decline since 2018 due to unrest, lack of investment, and climate-driven changes – it is difficult to get it to customers. “Gangs control all the major roads connecting Port-au-Prince to the countryside and [small farmers] cannot access the market to sell the products,” said Annesteus, who lost her 12-year-old cousin in the August earthquake.
“They need to fund Haitian solutions, and Haitian solutions will be climate-smart, like traditional agriculture.”
A national strategy for food sovereignty, security, and nutrition was developed and approved last year by Moïse’s government, but given the instability it’s unclear when – or if – the new policy will be implemented.
Food prices, meanwhile, are continuing to soar.
In the capital, a bag of rice weighing roughly 2.7 kilograms has doubled in price to 500 gourdes ($5) in the last few years, while a pack of pasta has nearly doubled to 55 gourdes, said Adeline Chéry, a 56-year-old who works as a cook in a private home.
Things are worse in the southern peninsula, which was most affected by the August earthquake. In Jérémie, nearly 200 kilometres west of Port-au-Prince, a 12.5-kilogram sack of rice costs 3,600 gourdes ($35), said hair braider Roselène Milfor, 36. “Even when I’m able to make 500 gourdes ($5), you can’t make it last,” she told The New Humanitarian by phone.
When there’s no food, some Haitians consume dirt cakes – discs made of mud, salt, and vegetable shortening that contain trace amounts of fat and minerals. The cakes, also known as “galettes”, are sometimes given to pregnant women and children for indigestion.
The colonial roots of the problem
When Haiti became the world’s first Black republic in 1804, it paid a heavy price. France imposed a hefty indemnity charge to pay for property – and slaves – it lost.
The debt, worth around $21 billion today, saddled the country with hefty payments – money that could have been spent on building roads, irrigation systems, and other infrastructure projects that would have supported the agricultural sector in the long term. It took Haiti more than a century to pay off the debt.
With a variety of staple crops, the Caribbean nation was largely food self-sufficient until the mid-1980s. Then, under pressure from the United States and international organisations, it agreed to liberalise trade and slashed import tariffs from 50 to 3 percent, compared to the regional average of 38 percent. This opened the floodgates to highly subsidised rice from US farmers, and did so with no accompanying policies to shield local food producers, who were unable to compete with lower-priced imports.
“These decisions put Haitian farmers out of business,” explained Annesteus, who was born in 1983 and witnessed the effects of the policies on her parents. “You see your family out there trying to work the land every day, but in the end they don’t make anything significant out of it.”
“Gangs control all the major roads connecting Port-au-Prince to the countryside, and small farmers cannot access the market to sell the products.”
Trade liberalisation also decimated the traditional Haitian poultry industry, replacing local free-range chickens that took four months to mature with US chickens that could grow to maturity in about a month due to industrial farming practices.
Once called the “Pearl of the Antilles” and known for regularly exporting sugar, coffee, and bitter oranges that flavour Grand Marnier, Haiti now relies heavily on food imports.
Today, 80 percent of rice, all cooking oil, and nearly half of all the food consumed in Haiti is imported, according to the US-funded famine monitor FEWS NET.
In March 2010, two months after the catastrophic earthquake, Bill Clinton – who was US president when some of the trade liberalisation agreements went into effect – apologised for having championed policies that harmed the country’s farming sector.
READ MORE: Haiti’s imported food and health problems
The evolution, deterioration, and manipulation of Haitian food production has also altered the eating habits of many Haitians. Rice has replaced other foods over the past three decades, and there has been a rise in imported processed foods.
According to Action Against Hunger, imports of rice rose from 7,000 tonnes in 1985 to 400,000 tonnes in 2017. Haitians have always eaten rice, but the increase means it is now the core part of their diets, which has health consequences.
“The poor quality diets, mostly cereal-based… creates the problem of hidden hunger and nutrient deficiencies,” explained Lora Iannotti, an associate dean for public health at Washington University in St. Louis who recently began a three-year nutritional study in northern Haiti.
According to the latest UN figures, one in five Haitian children under five are stunted due to malnutrition, which affects both physical and cognitive growth, and nearly half of all women of reproductive age are anaemic. At the same time, more Haitians are becoming obese – 22.7 percent in 2016, compared to 19.4 percent in 2012.
All these can stymie efforts to reduce hunger and malnutrition, particularly amongst children, said Lenka Blanarova, senior nutrition assessment coordinator for Action Against Hunger UK.
Yet even before the 2010 earthquake, farmers had “no financial back-up, no technology, no education”, Fritz Alphonse Jean, president of the Haitian Public Policy Institute (INHOPP) and a former governor of the Haitian Central Bank (BRH), told The New Humanitarian. “If you look at the credit allocated to the agricultural sector today, it is less than two percent. The sector was completely neglected throughout Haitian economic history.”
The international aid dynamics have also complicated the situation. Agencies such as the World Food Programme provide crucial assistance for those in the midst of crisis. Although WFP says it has started to buy more food from local producers, the majority is still bought outside of Haiti because local production can’t satisfy the needs.
Back in October 2010, Oxfam International released a report criticising how foreign food aid was continuing to undercut local agriculture, and calling on donors to help develop the sector instead. Yet things seem to have changed very little more than a decade later.
It was “really frustrating to see a lot of food being brought into the south” after the August earthquake, said Miles of the Haiti Response Coalition. “We had organisers, mobilisers on the ground who live in the communities, and they were saying, ‘Look, you can buy food on the market. You don’t need to send food to a place that has food on the market’.”
Climate change is also accelerating the need for urgent reforms to Haiti’s food production system, even as shortages become more acute due to the rising insecurity.
Haiti sits in the middle of the hurricane belt. It is also in a seismically active zone, making it even more vulnerable to natural disasters.
Deforestation has amplified this vulnerability – clearcutting that began centuries ago to make way for colonial sugar plantations has effectively crippled agricultural production and ramped up flooding and landslide risks.
Climate change is also expected to bring even more frequent and intense droughts, floods, and storms. And with each storm comes the salinisation of coastal aquifers. Without the right tools given to Haiti’s agricultural sector – 60 percent of rural Haitians depend on the sector for jobs and income – lower crop yields are likely, along with more hunger and malnutrition.
In last year’s Global Climate Risk Index, Haiti was one of the most vulnerable countries to weather-related losses between 2000 and 2019, both in terms of lives and economy.
Bazelais Dulience, dean at the State University of Haiti’s Henry Christophe campus in the northern town of Limonade, is particularly worried given the lack of irrigation in Haiti.
“In the future… we will have to buy more food from abroad with the little money we do have, which will result in greater poverty, triggering a vicious cycle,” Dulience told The New Humanitarian.
But for Marie Bellange Alfred, a 63-year-old farmer who has been impacted by both the August earthquake and erratic rainfall in the southern town of Camp-Perrin, the future is already here.
She currently relies on food from aid agencies and humanitarian organisations.
“It hasn’t rained for us to plant crops,” Alfred told The New Humanitarian. “Plus, we don’t have irrigation… our only hope is the rain.”
According to the World Bank, less than five percent of Haitian farmers had irrigation in 2013. Little has changed since then.
Seeds of hope
Prime Minister Ariel Henry has promised elections this year, but no date has been set.
A coalition of Haitian lawmakers and civil society groups has proposed that a two-year transitional government be installed to provide greater stability. Instead, Henry wants to set up a provisional electoral council so that elections can be held. On Monday, Jean, the former central bank governor, was chosen by the opposition as Haiti’s interim president in a move not recognised by Henry, officially the acting president.
José Luis Fernandez, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) country director in Haiti, said the new food strategy that was agreed upon last year could change the country’s damaging importation policies, as well as provide greater support for local production.
It could also go a long way towards breaking the stranglehold of powerful elites on the food market: A 2016 World Bank study found that just two companies dominated the Haitian market for palm oil, as well as other vegetable and animal oils.
Fourteen local businesses have set up the Haiti Local Food Systems Alliance to improve productivity and the incomes of tens of thousands of farmers. Acceso – a social enterprise business working in Haiti, Colombia, and El Salvador – is one of the members.
After the August 2021 earthquake, Acceso sourced and supplied local fruit, vegetables, and grains to people impacted by the disaster. It is also working to produce more locally sourced food kits for affected communities.
“One of the problems [with donors’ support of Haitian agriculture] is that there are few market-linked solutions ready to invest in or fund philanthropically, and the hard work of building out new food supply chains still needs to happen,” Acceso CEO James Jenkin told The New Humanitarian.
Paolo Silveri – country director for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which is helping farmers in southern Haiti to develop climate-smart solutions – said the five key ingredients for the country to turn itself around are security, stability, investments, capacity-building, and jobs.
“All that creates and multiplies reasonable chances for most people to make a decent living at home. Out-migration of young Haitians is a wound that keeps bleeding and nails the country to its current dire conditions,” he said.
More than 1.7 million Haitians have migrated since the 2010 earthquake. Thousands have also left in recent years due to the escalating gang violence.
Despite the obvious challenges, Annesteus remains optimistic about Haiti’s future. She points to the experiences of her own family as proof.
Ironically, her parents sent her to school so she wouldn’t have to become a farmer. Scholarships took her to Venezuela and the United States to study, but she returned to Haiti to help.
Although land ownership continues to be an obstacle, her parents still farm, and now – after years of saving – they own a small plot of land.
Annesteus’ younger sister helped last year to build Bercy’s first community health centre – one of the few providing first aid assistance after the August earthquake.
One of her brothers, meanwhile, studied law, but has since started studying agronomy.
“The hope is that people like me, my sister, and many others that experienced hardship growing up are coming together to support the community,” Annesteus said. “And I am optimistic…”
Sarah Jean and Evens Mary reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Thin Lei Win reported from Rome, Italy. Illustration by Alexandra Antoine in Chicago, US. Edited by Paisley Dodds in London, UK.
Note from the illustrator: I appreciate the deeper conversation happening within the article about some of the root causes of Haiti’s current food situation because too often the conversation starts with looking at its present state without context. As a Haititan-American who is very interested in food systems and agriculture, it is so valuable to know and understand how political and systemic issues carry over into our food systems while also being inspired and motivated by the conversations and organisations doing work around farming and food insecurity in Haiti.