Haiti quake is beginning to be felt miles away


Even in normal times, Edwin Andre has all he can do to eke out a living from the corn, tomatoes and sweet potatoes he coaxes from an acre plot in northern Haiti. His wife, Roselaine Cius, peddles the produce roadside and cooks rice-and-bean plates from a stick-frame lunch shack to help support their family of eight.

Suddenly, though, eight hungry mouths soared to 18 after siblings and in-laws from earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince fled by rattletrap bus to this sweep of farmland, a two-hour drive from the capital.

The couple’s spare, concrete house -- no bigger than an average one-bedroom apartment in the United States -- is packed to bursting. Food once converted to cash goes to feed the homeless loved ones. Money is now so short that the pair doubt they will be able to buy seeds for the crucial spring planting season that is only weeks away.

“I don’t see how we will have enough money,” said Cius, 40, sweating under a porkpie hat as she ladled rice from a charcoal-heated pot. “There’s no way. There’s no money.”

The effects of the Jan. 12 earthquake that flattened much of Port-au-Prince are rippling powerfully across rural Haiti, the poorest swath of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Villagers are near the breaking point as they try to accommodate tens of thousands of displaced city dwellers just when they would be putting their precious resources into preparing for planting. In desperation, some have resorted to eating their meager seed stocks or killing their chickens and goats to feed the influx, rather than keeping them to sell.

Fertilizer is expensive and seeds for cereal crops are in short supply because of damage to the seaport in the capital and wary buying by wholesalers. Farming areas southwest of Port-au-Prince were also devastated by the 7.0 quake, which ruined whole towns, such as Leogane, near the epicenter, and damaged vital irrigation channels.

Agricultural officials and aid workers worry that while global efforts to help quake victims in Port-au-Prince are hitting their stride, the ripple effect in the countryside threatens to stymie home farming and worsen conditions in areas where most people already scrape by on less than $2 a day. Some experts warn of a quiet agricultural disaster in the making.

Relief workers say only a tiny portion of international aid has been earmarked for rural Haitians, who account for most of the country’s 9 million people. Of $23 million sought for farmers as part of an urgent appeal by the United Nations, donor governments have provided only about $2 million for agriculture.

“These communities were already the poorest part of the country. The countryside is extremely poor and they have very few means to cope,” said Alexander L. Jones, Haiti emergency-response manager for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. “It is putting a lot of stress on families.”

Jones said spot surveys show that the average size of rural families has nearly doubled, from five members to nine.

Agencies are scrambling to import 2 tons of seeds, plus hoes, shovels and wheelbarrows, for the farmers, many of whom lost their hand tools under collapsed homes near Port-au-Prince. The first shipment of 15,000 implements arrived last week. Relief workers are also turning to the Dominican Republic next door to hunt for seed varieties that are also planted in Haiti.

“The planting season is approaching. We’ve got to deliver these seeds before it starts,” said Roberto Borlini, who works for an Italian nonprofit called GVC that plans to distribute seeds and tools to 2,000 families near Petit-Goave, a hard-hit town southwest of the capital.

GVC and at least a couple of dozen other foreign aid agencies, including such major players as CARE, have focused part of their efforts on rural areas. But farmland assistance has been overshadowed by the critical needs in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti’s agricultural sector was a basket case even before the quake.

Years of deforestation have denuded much of the countryside, helping to degrade overworked soil that doesn’t hold nutrients well and yields food reluctantly.

In a country that grows rice and corn, Haitians get most of their cereals and many other goods from abroad, making them extraordinarily expensive. A chicken can cost $7.

Tropical storms two years ago caused $200 million in damage to food crops. Since the earthquake, the nation’s agriculture minister, Joanas Gue, has called on creditor nations to help by forgiving Haitian debt.

In many ways, relief workers say, it’s fortunate that so many of the displaced found shelter with relatives. The arrangement provides a smoother way to deliver aid and offers the homeless a healthier alternative to sleeping in the encampments that have popped up in Port-au-Prince.

But the exodus of an estimated 480,000 people from the capital has flooded dirt-road villages with city folk who need to eat and have little interest in hoe-and-spade work. Anyway, there were already too few farm jobs to go around.

“I don’t go out. I don’t hear music. I don’t see the things I’m used to seeing,” said bored-looking city dweller Richemononde Cius, 27, the sister of Roselaine. She and other family members piled into a bus headed for the country two days after the earthquake, which split the family house in Port-au-Prince, killing a cousin.

As a child, Richemononde Cius spent summers with her farming relatives, but she never wanted to live in the country. She now bides her time waiting for ideas from her fiance in Boston on how to join him there.

The 10 newcomers pitch in as they can, then stay outside in the dirt yard as late as possible before bunking down on concrete floors covered wall to wall with people.

Roselaine Cius said that feeding the arrivals -- they call themselves “deportees” -- means she has less food to turn into plates of rice, beans and bits of chicken to sell for $1.75 at her tin-roof hut. Most of her customers are in the same boat, though, with fewer able to buy.

“Every morning I have to think about where to get food for all these people,” said her 53-year-old husband. “I can’t let them go hungry.”

With funds dwindling, he and his wife have yet to buy seed for the spring crop of beans, maize and rice.

Half a mile up the road, Luckner Monrinvil and his family have taken in 10 relatives from Port-au-Prince in two weather-beaten shanties.

The difficulty of finding something to eat has brought constant anxiety. A few spoonfuls of rice or a bit of boiled breadfruit, fortified with pieces of processed fish, may be all anyone gets.

The recent harvest of peppers and sweet potatoes was a flop, a fact Monrinvil attributes to the earth’s trembling. He has no cash for seeds.

Monrinvil, 53 years old but taut as a teenager, offers to show a visitor his half-acre field, a hike of a mile or so. Under a scorching afternoon sun, he sets out past verdant stands of corn and a wide irrigation channel that also serves as a swimming pool and bathtub for residents.

But about halfway, Monrinvil reconsiders and asks to turn back. He is feeling the first pangs of hunger, and they remind him that he lacks a plan for food this day.

There are so many mouths to feed.