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Opinion

Can Haiti Reinvent Itself post Covid-19?

By Joshua Paul

Question: What do the COVID-19 pandemic andthe Cold War have in common?

Answer: Covid-19 can do for Haiti what the end of the Cold War did for Cuba.

One very warm evening in the summer of 2005, I found myself in the beautiful Hamptons two hours outside of New York City attending a fundraiser for Haiti given by Haitian-born superstar Wyclef Jean. Upon arrival, I wandered aimlessly over the well-manicured lawn trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, as if it were a business as usual for me to glance across acouch and see Bon Jovi casually sipping on a drink. 

Finally, toward the end of the night, my sister,who at the time was working for Wyclef’s organization Yéle Haiti, created some space around the artist and introduced us. So, there was Clef, larger than life, donning his signature performance “chemisette blanche”, holding Angelina Jolie’s hand with one hand and the other hand extended towards me. “What you got for me, Man?” he said jokingly. “We’re delivering thousands of bags of rice to hungry Haitians every day.  What you gonna do about it?” And then he was gone! He got swallowed by a crowd of folks and disappeared just as fast as he had appeared, Angelina Jolie in tow…

Fast forward to 2020, Yéle Haiti is now defunct, and the phrase “Haiti is the place where dreams go to die” comes to mind.  Except this time, it did not happen to a foreign NGO.  It happened to one of our own, well-intentioned influencers who – by the way – also happens to be one of the most charismatic performers on the planet.

We have all learned a thing or two since 2005,not the least of which is that giving food to the poor does not solve the hunger problem. In fact, it has the tendency to deepen food insecurity!

In spite of this important realization, free food continues to be a staple of foreign assistance to third world economies. Case in point – Food for the Poor is a 900 million dollar-a-year enterprise. What’s worse is that many of our own Haitian food experts continue to buy into outdated ideas supported by proponents of industrialized agriculture, thereby skewing the education of our home-grown agronomists to serve the needs of the industrialized worldinstead of their own country.

A quick look at Cuba’s urban agriculture reveals what a country can do when it is pushed into a corner. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba faced a fuel and food crisis of unprecedented proportions. Almost overnight,its fuel and pesticides supplies were cut off. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), the daily caloric intake of the average Cuban in the years following the end of the Cold War was practically cut in half. 

Cuba responded with organoponicosit’s own brand of urban agriculture that usesenvironment-friendly organic substrates instead of chemical fertilizers. The country changed its single-crop industrial farming system designed to export to Russia into small community owned, multi-crop farming outfits. By 2008, small local farmers were producing 90% of all the country’s fruits and vegetables, and the average calorific intake was back up in the 2600calories a day range.

As the side effects of COVID-19 continue to add more pressure to the world’s already threatened food supply chain, many scientists are predicting famines of biblical proportions across the globe, emphasizing that places like Haiti will bear the brunt of it.

The million-dollar question now is: What sign from heaven are we Haitians waiting on to start producing our own food?

Fortunately, we do not have to look very far. Currently, Haiti has several forward-thinking activists who believe in the country’s ability to grow its own food. These leaders have taken it upon themselves to lead by example. One is ourvery own CNN hero nominee Daniel Tillias,founder of SAKALA, Haiti’s largest urban garden project.  Tillias reminds us that: “Se tet kimennen ko men se vant ki kenbe ko. Toutotannou pa fe manje pou manje nou pa gen wonnpot nap fe nan devlopman”  (It’s the head that leads the body, but it’s the belly that holds the body. If we cannot feed ourselves, we cannot speak of development.) Another proponent of sustainable gardening is Sidney Etienne, Co-Founder of Grown in Haiti, whose work illustrates how far a small food forest can go in helping a community sustain itself. We also have the likes of agronomists Lormier in ÇapHaitien, Lubin in Grand Goave, Wisly Jasmin in Jérémie, Laurent Demateis in Port-Au-Prince, just to name a few.

Despite its a lack of popularity, the Cubanexample supports what has been suspected for a long time. And that is that organic, non-fossil fuel-dependent community agriculture – when done right – is cheaper, healthier, and better forthe environment.  And it creates jobs!  One would be hard pressed to find another industry that unites these four characteristics.

The Covid-19 pandemic may be one of the worse assaults on the human way of life in a century, but it is not all bad news. It has created a huge opportunity for Haitian agriculture to make a decisive move and change the waypeople get food in Haiti forever!

This message is not merely a call to action to avoid a period of famine in Haiti. It is a wake-up call for concerned Haitians everywhere, especially connoisseurs in agriculture, to pause and question the status quo.

Haiti cannot afford to lose this goldenopportunity to get off the road to perpetual alimentary slavery. We may not see this opportunity again for a long time to come.  For goodness’s sake, let’s give this country a chance to get on the road to a healthier and more abundant local food supply – and a more sustainable future in the process!  We cannot possibly have anything else to lose.

Joshua Paul, M.D., is Founder and CEO of Buildand Bridge, a Haiti-focused community development, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Greenville, SC.  Please visit www.buildandbridge.org for more information.

May. 20, 2020

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