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Sowing the seeds of a better future

By Elizabeth Stevens
“Rice is what the country produces and what the country eats,” says Eslik Saint Paul of Petite Rivière de l’Artibonite. Many Haitians eat rice for every meal of every day. Photo: Anna Fawcus/Oxfam

A few hours north of Port-au-Prince, in a beautiful valley where the Artibonite River winds gently between two mountain ranges, there is a landscape perfectly suited to growing rice. The people who live there have farmed rice for generations. But in 1995 there was a flood. Not the kind where the river rises and a few days later recedes. This was a flood triggered by powerful business interests: a sudden and drastic reduction in customs tariffs—the second in less than a decade—that enabled cheap imported rice to overwhelm the Haitian market. Eighteen years later, it shows no signs of relenting. The result has been stagnation and poverty, and a steep drop in the market share of locally grown rice.

When the earthquake of 2010 struck Haiti, the disaster shone a spotlight on the vulnerability of a country that has traditionally focused its resources on the capital city and left the countryside to fend for itself. Haiti had long since become dependent on imported food, and when hundreds of thousands of people returned to their home villages after the quake, they faced a future of deep rural poverty.

So, Oxfam joined forces with farmers’ associations, women’s groups, and local government authorities to help revive the rice economy for 5,000 farmers in the lower Artibonite Valley—to make rice farming viable again by systematically addressing the points in production where Haitian rice has lost its ability to compete in the globalized marketplace.

With Oxfam’s support, many farmers are now practicing a method of growing rice that is more than doubling yields while reducing the use of seeds, water, and chemical inputs. Farmers have access to new processing equipment that is lowering costs while improving the quality of the final product, and to motorized cultivators to prepare their land for planting. And in a region where mechanics for farming equipment are in short supply, dozens of young men and women are training to become professional agricultural mechanics. Through cash-for-work programs, farming communities are clearing irrigation channels of debris, sediment, and weeds, and in the process have brought 4,700 acres of land back under cultivation. Those hit hard by recent hurricanes are getting relief. Women rice farmers in the valley are gaining access to low-interest loans so they can become more successful entrepreneurs. And Oxfam is advocating with the national government, US policy makers, and the international banking and development communities for policies that support rather than undermine Haitian rice farmers.

Together, Oxfam and our partners are beginning to weave together the tattered fabric of the rice economy into a coherent whole, and soon the effects may extend throughout Artibonite and beyond.

The relief in the communities is palpable. Farmer Augustin Miradieu lives in the village of Dubuisson, where irrigation has been restored to 370 acres of land. “We were hungry, but that is getting better all the time,” he says. “Now, we have the irrigation we need to farm, so we have food to eat.”

Read this story, and more like it, in our Winter 2013 edition of Closeup.

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