(IPS) JEREMIE -- The Sud province of Haiti is suffering a drought so severe that the planting season has been postponed.
Yet no international financial assistance has come through to confront the crisis, reported Cecile Banatte, the local official designated by the interim government of Haiti to govern the largely agricultural southern province.
The situation is even more drastic in view of the fact that the sprawling southwest portion of the country -- where the Uruguayan contingent of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is based -- produces the bulk of the limited food supplies for the nation's estimated 8.5 million inhabitants.
The effects of the shortage of water and the delayed start of the rainy season, which usually brings torrential downpours from late April through June, were clearly apparent from the plane that took a group of Uruguayan journalists from Les Cayes to Jeremie, the province's two main cities.
There are normally rivers flowing down the slopes of the mountain that cuts through the region from east to west. Now the river beds are mainly mud, and produce just enough of a trickle of water for nearby residents to bathe and wash their clothes, as they have done for centuries. The infrastructure for running water and sewage systems has yet to reach this area. Also visible are arid terraces where food crops once grew.
In spite of the drought, southern Haiti is still greener than most of the country, where almost all vegetation vanished years ago. The central valley of Artobonite was carpeted with rice fields that fed the entire nation just 20 years ago. Today, it produces barely enough for the last peasants who refuse to move out of the area.
Plans for the agricultural sector include reviving that rice production, "a strategic commodity," according to fisheries director Roberto Badieu.
Rice was once the country's leading export, until Haiti succumbed to International Monetary Fund pressures and opened its borders to foreign trade -- mostly U.S. -- in the mid-1980s, the heyday of the free-market "neoliberal" economic model, now under attack throughout the developing world
With the elimination of trade barriers, the country was flooded with subsidized U.S. rice, which spelled disaster for local producers.
Domestic and foreign sales of Haitian rice dropped by 50 percent, pushing droves of almost famine-stricken peasants towards the capital's slums. In just over two decades, the population of Port-au-Prince doubled to an estimated four million people today.
Because of the central government's historic neglect of the south, separatist sentiments flare up there from time to time, noted Banatte.
Some trees still grow in the region, and family farming remains a constant, with a small plot planted next to every house along the gravel roads that are rendered impassable by the yearly arrival of heavy rains and flooding. It seems that life in Haiti moves from one extreme to the other, and the only middle ground is the disturbing statistic bearing the number 50.
Haiti produces only 50 percent of the food consumed there, the average life expectancy is around 50 years, 50 percent of the population is illiterate, and the same proportion is aged 21 or under. Just over 50 percent of Haitians have access to drinking water and sewage services, and roughly the same percentage suffers from malnutrition.
In this Caribbean island nation, a child dies of hunger every hour, and in the northern regions, where there is little or no agricultural production, the figure rises to 29 deaths a day, out of a total population of slightly over a million.
Infant mortality as a result of malnutrition and lack of sanitation is 69 per 1000 live births, according to Anne Poulsen, a Danish representative of the World Food Program (WFP) in Haiti.
These statistics are quite understandable given that three out of every four Haitians depends in one way or another on agriculture, primarily subsistence farming.
The predominance of human and animal traction makes travelling through the rural areas of Haiti like going back to the 19th century: during a whole week in the country's southern region, the Uruguayan journalists saw only one tractor.
At a press conference with the Uruguayan delegation, Minister of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Development Philippe Mathieu reported that some 700,000 Haitian families live off the land, which has been eroded to the point of exhaustion by centuries of deforestation. Barely two percent of the trees standing when the French colonial era began remain today.
With an enthusiasm that seemed more like an attempt at sending the visitors away with a positive image than a reflection of reality, Mathieu stressed that the country retains an abundance of natural wealth, such as mangoes, of which Haiti is the world's fifth largest exporter.
The country also produces rice, squash, cacao and pepper, as well as poultry, goats and pigs, many of which can be seen in downtown Port-au-Prince, feeding upon the piles of garbage on the streets.
"The south is an example of the effort to overcome the violence that has forced many people out of the countryside," stated Mathieu.
"There, the situation is under control," he added, praising the work of the Uruguay 1 Joint Battalion posted in the south by the MINUSTAH leadership. "We also expect the peacekeeping forces to work with our peasants," he noted.
But he underlined that "international solidarity is essential for rebuilding our institutions," an obvious allusion to the delay in the arrival of the financial aid promized by wealthy countries.
According to a study carried out last year by international experts and the caretaker government of Boniface Alexandre (appointed after the Feb. 29, 2004 U.S. overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide), at least $1.3 billion over the course of two years will be needed for reconstruction and for rebuilding the country's institutions.
That figure was later revized with the addition of another one billion dollars, but so far the donor nations have only come through with $250 million, claiming that the eventual beneficiaries have either not been accurately identified or that the institutions in charge of handling the aid are not reliable.
While Mathieu was quite well-versed on the details of overdue foreign assistance, he was unable to come up with any accurate information regarding the agricultural sector for which he is responsible. IPS received similarly vague answers when talking to his colleagues.
Given the current parlous state of the sector, international food aid is crucial, particularly in this nation where the average annual income is barely $400 and the lack of clean drinking water results in frequent outbreaks of diseases like diarrea, dysentery and typhoid.
"Fortunately, there are not many children with acute malnutrition, but a great many are undernourished, and that is very serious in itself," Poulsen told the Uruguayan journalists.
In some regions of Haiti, 47 percent of children lack proper nutrition, and many suffer physical and mental problems as a consequence.
Approximately 1.5 million Haitians depend on humanitarian aid from the WFP, despite the fact that the country is home to a large variety of ecosystems that offer ample opportunities for diversified agricultural production, for both domestic consumption and export, said the Danish expert.
This year, she noted, the WFP has assisted 550,000 families at a cost of $20 million, contributed by both national governments and private donors, particularly the United States, the European Union, Switzerland, Canada and Japan.
Over the next two years, more than $40 million will be required to reach the 850,000 families in need of aid, who also receive assistance from other UN agencies, like the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), as well as non-governmental organizations.
But donors are difficult to find, remarked Poulsen, because "there are a lot of problems in the world," and this small nation, devoid of much strategic value, is not a priority for the countries of the industrialized North.
"In my country, Denmark, people know nothing about the political and economic situation in Haiti, because it's not in the headlines of the world media, but even so, there are civil society and church groups that provide cooperation," she said.
"Haiti is not in the spotlight," she lamented.
June 10, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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