Haiti’s small farmers should be its biggest asset. But that requires a complete reversal of the thinking – or lack of it – that has made Haiti one of the three least food secure nations on earth: namely that food imports, meaning food dependency, ensures food security, and that food sovereignty, the right and need to produce at home, is irrelevant.
Given the pervasive myths about food production it comes as a shock that small farmers are actually more efficient that their bigger cousins. In fact, the smaller the farm the greater the yield per unit of land, a phenomenon first documented by Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen in India and confirmed by numerous studies elsewhere since.
Small farmers’ very survival usually depends on maximizing yields from minimal acreage. To do so, they use more labour per hectare, often just themselves or family members, meaning it is higher quality. More labour usually means more investment in improvements – terracing or basic irrigation for instance – and makes possible the cultivation of several crops simultaneously, such as planting beans to climb maize stalks.
Yet recent research has also shown how much more small farmers in places like Haiti could produce. In March 2011, the UN published a report documenting how small farmers had doubled food production using agroecological methods requiring nothing more than a vigorous national commitment to comprehensive training.
Through an extensive review of scientific literature, the UN report demonstrates that agroecology – broadly the application of ecological science to agricultural systems – yields better small-farm results wherever and whenever it is introduced. “States can and must achieve a reorientation of their agricultural systems,” the report from the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food insists.
Agroecology projects in 20 countries in Africa have shown an average increase in yields of 116% within 3-10 years. Malawi, which has embraced agroecology and abandoned the sort of subsidized chemical fertilizer program now being copied by Haiti, has shown a doubling of maize yields to 2-3 tonnes per hectare.
A serious national programme to train Haitian farmers in such techniques is not only logical, it is appropriate. The intensive labour required is already a key feature of small farms in Haiti, whose farmers cannot afford expensive inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides or imported seed. Most Haitian farmers are, in agricultural parlance, already organic, if not agroecological, by default.
An agroecology focus would meet all the key aims foreign donors have set for development in Haiti, namely boosting employment, restoring the environment and decentralizing growth. There is no industry on earth more labour intensive than small-scale agriculture; nothing gives the local population more of a stake in the restoration and preservation of their environment.
Meantime, what could decentralize labour, services and production more completely from Port-au-Prince than agriculture? What could stimulate rural economies and ancillary industries more than the storage, processing, transportation and local sale of more grain, fruit and vegetables?
But the logic runs even deeper than that. Poverty alleviation is the declared number one goal of foreign donors. The eight UN Millennium Development Goals for 2015, which include halving the proportion of the global population going hungry, are built around it.
Poverty is at its worst in Haiti in rural areas: nearly 90% of the 55% of Haitians who live in the countryside are poor. Two-thirds of those living in rural areas – some 33% of the total Haitian population – are considered extremely poor, living on incomes of less than the equivalent of $1 a day.
Numerous programmes have demonstrated that the quickest, most effective and most sustainable way to reduce poverty is to invest heavily in small-scale agriculture. The World Bank asserts that growth in agriculture is more than twice as effective at reducing poverty as growth in any other sector. Better still, investment in agriculture is the most effective way to reduce extreme poverty. It is, after all, in the countryside that such poverty is concentrated.
Importing food, however cheap, does not ensure it will be available or affordable to those who need it most – in fact, by competing with or even crushing domestic production, imports, which are often subsidized by foreign governments, tend to do the opposite.
Enabling and encouraging more Haitians to produce more of their food by giving them the means – the land, the tools, and the training – ensures more of them will eat more regularly, whether they are themselves farmers or not.
The UN report, reinforced by other studies, has given global impetus to what is known as the food sovereignty movement, which extends “the right to food” concept beyond food security to the means by which such security is achieved, namely the right of nations to define their own food production systems.
The more progressive peasant-based civil society organisations (CSOs) in Haiti have been advocating such an approach for decades as the most productive, practical, poverty-reducing solution. Their stance is based on years of real experience in counteracting the devastating effect of what has passed for Haitian agricultural policy to date.
“There can be no real food security, without food sovereignty,” says Doudou Pierre, the Haitian representative of Via Campesina, the global campaign for food sovereignty. “The groups we work with are already implementing the solution by putting the means in the hands of small farmers locally. The government needs to listen, learn and scale up what we know works.”