CORPORANT, Haiti—An agricultural program that helped inch people out of poverty and hunger in this village about 25 miles north of Port-au-Prince is racing to feed thousands who flocked here after the earthquake.
The increased role of the program, called Zanmi Agrikol, shows the catastrophe’s effects on the countryside, where an estimated half-million people fled from the capital. Since the mid-January disaster, the Haitian government has been trying to figure out how to provide food and jobs in rural areas neglected for decades. Zanmi Agrikol—which means “Partners in Agriculture” in Creole—is one model of how the agricultural industry and cottage businesses will help meet the challenge.
“Since this business started, we have been able to buy food and send our son to school,” St. Jean Nadine Wadley said recently, as she walked home with her husband and son, after washing clothes and bathing in a nearby river.
Through Zanmi Agrikol, the Wadleys and 240 other families receive seeds, farming equipment as well as trees for reforestation and food, including mango, citrus and banana trees. They are taught techniques, such as planting, composting and terracing sloped yards. As a result, most families here are cultivating tiny plots of land at home, so they can grow their own food and sell a small surplus.
Now, with refugees having more than doubled the size of the village, organizers and residents are racing to expand the program.
“Now we have ten new people in our house. And we don’t have enough food,” Mrs. Wadley says.
In Haiti, which now imports 80% of its food, the government has focused development on the capital and not rural areas in the surrounding départements. Nearly all government services, police and schools were concentrated in the crowded capital, Port-au-Prince.
The earthquake changed this dynamic in 30 seconds. Since then, more than 160,000 people went to the département of Artibonite. An estimated 6,000 went to Grand-Anse. And at least 9,000 journeyed to the Central Plateau, where Corporant is located.
This rare reverse urban migration is creating a crisis in rural areas that were relatively stable immediately after the earthquake. Many people are looking to agriculture to help solve the problem, though most caution that Haiti needs far more than agricultural programs to turn the country around.
“It’s a very dangerous situation,” says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is an urgency to take a serious look at expanding agricultural projects that had been in the works. The country needs to grow its own food. But it is not going to solve all the economic and socioeconomic issues.”
In Corporant, as many as 20 additional people have moved into each home, typically one or two-bedroom huts with mud floors, says Gillaine Warne, an Australian-born horticulturalist who runs Zanmi Agrikol.
Ms. Warne recently called an emergency meeting with 27 Haitians—agronomists, technicians, nursery men, tractor drivers, and gardeners—on the 80-acre farm where Zanmi Agrikol grows peanuts and other crops for a local nutrition program. They put together a long list of vegetables—such as Haitian spinach, eggplant, sweet potatoes, beans, corn and peanuts—that will grow quickly, between planting seasons, and can be harvested in three months.
“This will be the ‘stop gap’ food until the real harvest comes in later,” Ms. Warne said. The program will then identify another 2,000 families to become part of the program. Ultimately, she aims to help more than 5,000 families.
Ms. Warne, who started Zanmi Agrikol in 2004, splits her time between Haiti and Greenville, S.C. Funding for the program comes from Partners in Health, a Boston-based medical and social services organization that operates clinics and hospitals in Haiti, as well as an Episcopal church in South Carolina, and Rotary International.
The goal is to make this region self-sufficient—”to move away from dependency on handouts,” Ms. Warne said. “This is a rural country, and now it is coming back to its roots.”
The Haitian government and a number of private organizations have stepped up efforts to revive the farming industry. One hurdle is Haiti’s lack of trees—98% of the country was deforested, first to pay off its debt to France in exchange for liberation in 1804 and later to supply energy. Deforestation has caused soil erosion, making much of the farmland infertile.
Even before the earthquake, more than half of Haiti’s population was undernourished. Now, food prices are too high for many people. For example, the price of a 55-pound bag of rice, rose after the quake by roughly 40% to about $42, said Louise Ivers, a physician working for Partners in Health in Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s agriculture sector accounts for 60% of the country’s annual economic output, but is still sclerotic. Most land is broken into small and disorganized holdings. Haitian farmers have little access to capital, modern machinery, and marketing muscle. As a result, sectors such as the fruit industry have lagged behind those of the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Johnny Celestin, a Haitian native who works for the Atlantic Philanthropies, a non-profit in New York, is working with the National Association of Fruit Processors, which provides technical assistance to Haitian fruit processors. They help maintain quality, round up equipment such as mills, get labels, and buy jars less expensively in bulk.
He is creating a fund to provide low-interest loans to farmers. “My investment would simply get recycled to other groups until there is a critical mass,” he says.
At Zanmi Agrikol, the new crops would be brought to market and sold for low prices. “It is hard to pick who to distribute food to,” Ms. Warne says. “So we will make it available for prices they can afford.”
Among those benefiting from the program is Gaspard Benjamin, who lives with 15 relatives in Corporant, where his father works on the Zanmi Agrikol farm. Thanks to the program, the family has been able to build a roof on their house and eat balanced meals.
Mr. Benjamin says the program has taken on urgency now that eight relatives displaced by the earthquake have moved in, including a brother who was studying in Port-au-Prince to be an electrician until the college collapsed in the catastrophe.
“I have many friends who this program has helped,” says Fereste Sonneus, the program’s chief agronomist. “Many of these people don’t have an education.”