DAME MARIE, Haiti — A soft rain is falling as a dozen farmers, sheltered by surrounding cacao trees, stand in a semicircle. One by one, each tells a similar story of why this year’s cocoa harvest is more crucial than ever.
“We’ve had a lot of people come who were injured, and there are more mouths to feed,” said Guerlains Saint-Louis, who has had eight relatives leave Port-au-Prince since the Jan. 12 earthquake to join his family of six.
So much money has been spent helping newcomers that there is none left to hire workers to prepare the 250 acres of land he and his father farm. “As long as the rains fall, there isn’t a problem.”
Before a U.S. government-funded training project helped these farmers improve their crop, rain had been all they depended on.
Boosting agricultural production will be high on the agenda Wednesday when more than 100 countries meet at the United Nations as part of an international donors conference on Haiti. The earthquake has highlighted the need for further investment outside of Port-au-Prince, especially as thousands flock to the countryside.
Cocoa is like much of the agriculture produced in Haiti: Farmers have little training or technology to work their crops, resulting in the lowest cocoa yield per cacao tree in the Western Hemisphere.
“Food aid is important for the short term, but in areas outside of Port-au-Prince, you have hundreds and hundreds of hectares that have been underutilized, where there has been no investment or support,” said Kimberly Flowers, a spokeswoman for the United States Agency for International Development in Haiti. “There is tremendous opportunity for growth in agriculture.”
But with many countries juggling funding, some long-term projects like this one are being cut to support immediate humanitarian efforts.
Alex Deprez, who heads USAID’s economic growth projects in Haiti, said that’s inevitable as everything the agency does in Haiti is judged through a “post-earthquake lens” — and the reality that USAID must redirect $80 million of its $287 million annual budget toward immediate relief and rebuilding efforts.
That puzzles Haitian exporter Theo Weiner, one of the country’s largest cocoa exporters and a funding partner in the project.
`THE EASIEST WAY’
“If you want to do something to help Haiti, I can’t believe you don’t think about developing agriculture,” Weiner said. `It’s the easiest way to get money to large amounts of people.”
The project is a joint effort by his company, Geo Weiner S.A., and Washington-based not-for-profit CNFA. Three years in the making, it began last fall. The goal is to double the current cocoa crop — and those farmers’ profits.
This part of the country, in a province called Grand’Anse on Hait’s westernmost tip, produces half of Haiti’s export crop for cocoa. It is one of the more fertile areas of the country, with abundant trees, regular rainfall and until now, a small population.
But most farmers, who usually have just a handful of cacao trees, tucked among other crops, usually farmed on the sides of hills, often don’t even prune their trees.
“See this tree?” asks American cocoa expert B. K. Matlick, pointing to one near the farmer Saint-Louis. `It’s got money on it. Cocoa is like a money pump.”
Matlick, an agronomist from Hershey, Penn., travels the world helping cocoa farmers improve their crop. On a recent trip to Haiti, Matlick taught farmers here and in a sister project in the north basics of pruning, grafting and tree growing. In all, 3,600 farmers will receive training.
Cocoa beans are harvested during two peak seasons, between April and May and November and December. On market day, farmers sell their beans to middlemen.
The middlemen — speculators — sell those beans to Weiner, whose family has exported the commodity for four generations. His factory in Dame Marie dries the beans, a process known as fermentation, before they are shipped from Jeremie to Port-au-Prince and eventually to companies like Mars Inc. in the United States.
While the global average for cocoa production is about 990 pounds for every two and a half acres, in Haiti, it’s just one third of that — about 330 pounds.
Doubling the crop means another 8,000 gourdes, or roughly $210, a significant amount of money in a country where half the population lives on less than $1 a day, according to the United National Development Program.
USAID’s Deprez said cutting the funding for this program doesn’t mean the agency will stop focusing on agriculture and investments outside of Port-au-Prince.
“We’re by no means considering giving up the strategy,” said Deprez, adding they’re in a waiting period until the donor conference provides clarity.
COMMENT BY HAITIAN-TRUTH.ORG
We have had all sorts of great and terrible ideas foisted upon Haiti by well-meaning folks, over the years.
Like the time Ronald Reagan forced Duvalier’s slaughter of Haiti’s Creol pigs with an overblown swine-fever scare. In any other country, the sick pigs would have been isolated and killed, saving the majority. This was a political move to put pressure on Duvalier. The pigs were an important factor in the peasant economy. By forcing Duvalier’ destruction of this important asset, Reagan hoped to weaken support for Duvalier.
This didn’t work, but millions of Haitian paid the price.
Then there was the time USAID spent $5,000,000 on a coffee project and never planted a single tree.
Haiti needs practical actions, not the usual bird-brained efforts of the foreign community.