Haiti's Ground Zero: A Field of Maize and Beans

Leogane is in tatters. A fifth of the population dead, 80-90% of the buildings are destroyed, and two weeks after the earthquake, people in this former agricultural hub are hungry and in desperate need of food.
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As long as you had the money, one thing a traveler would have passing through the poor Haitian farming town of Leogane, before the terrible earthquake on January 12, was a good meal. A stop-off on the long road from Port-au Prince to the south-western cities of Jacmel and Les Cayes, Leogane's roadside stalls sold hot meals of plantain, beans and maize. Weary travellers would stock up on coconuts, mangoes, sugar cane, bananas and grapefruit, depending on the season, from women crouched with baskets by the roadside.

Situated just a few miles from the quake's epicenter, Leogane is now in tatters, a fifth of the population dead, 80 to 90% of the buildings destroyed, and two weeks after the earthquake struck, people in this former agricultural hub are hungry and in desperate need of food.

Closer still to the earthquake's epicenter, in the rural areas, I took part in an FAO led assessment mission of damages to the agriculture sector. At first sight, there seemed to be more grounds for optimism. Haiti 's Ground Zero is covered in fields of beans and maize crops, seemingly untouched by the terrible force of nature that has caused the tragedy in Haiti.

If only that was the whole picture. Most of the scattered mud and tin-roofed shacks where the farmers who attended the fields lived were destroyed. Debris from the earthquake and the ensuing mudslides has blocked the irrigation canals. This is endangering not only the only source of water for humans and animals, but the beans and maize crops, part of them a few weeks from maturing, is at its thirstiest stage.

I found a group women crouched and scooping water in the fields with anything they could find, a plastic cup, even their bare hands. They told us their tools are trapped under the debris of their houses.

Further along the road, in the mountain rural areas between Leogane and Fond Dwa on the road to Jacmel the earthquake had destroyed all the farmer's houses. The area is a main source of bananas for Port-au-Prince.

Women traders, called "Madame Saras" in Haiti were seated with empty baskets waiting for suppliers that didn't come because of the earthquake.

FAO has already started the process to procure as fast as possible 10,000 each of wheel-barrows, pick-axes, hoes and shovels, so that the farmers can clear the canals as quickly as possible and save the crops.

There is a famous Haitian expression, behind every mountain is another mountain -- one problem follows another. To avert an increase in hunger and malnutrition in the rural areas, where 60% of the population live, urgent support and focus on Haiti's food production capacity, for the farmers to feed themselves and the people in the cities, is essential. Although most of the television cameras are in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's ability to bounce back lies in the rural areas.

Note: FAO Javier Escobedo, a former Regional Emergency Coordinator recently retired after spending five years working for FAO in Haiti. He has returned to help the UN agency in its emergency response. Last November he received FAO's B.R.Sen Award for his work in Haiti.

As well as acquiring relief supplies for those farmers immediately damaged by the earthquake, FAO is also seeking additional funds to continue its highly successful, nationwide quality seed multiplication and distribution project, carried out in partnership with the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture and funded by IFAD and the European Union, to provide reliable seeds to poor and vulnerable farmers.

One of the farmer's groups involved in the project across the country, draws its members, many of them women, from the mountain area of Trouin, a three or four hour walk across the mountains from Leogane. Any excess from the harvest of the programme, whose first aim was to provide more food locally, was sold at the roadside stalls to help pay for education and medicine for the farming families.

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