U.S. GROUP TEACHES HAITI BETTER FARMING TECHNIQUES AFTER EARTHQUAKE
(NJ.com - Star-Ledger) - By Bob Braun
BOIS LEGER, Haiti — He stands ankle deep in the rice patty and holds out his hands, palms up. "Look at these hands," says Emile Myl. "Feel them.”
The hands are rough, encrusted with calluses. The lines etched into his palms and fingers are veined with dirt that defies scrubbing.
"I am a farmer. I never lived in the city. I will never live in the city."
He is 54, but looks older. Most of his teeth are gone and the skin of his face looks like abused leather. Still, the man in the rice patty 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince represents, is, to some, the future of the nation.
Haiti desperately needs to relieve pressure on a capital city that could not provide basic services like health care and sanitation to its 3 million residents before the Jan. 12 earthquake. Unless it does, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere will sink even deeper into poverty and be vulnerable again to natural catastrophes.
"The nation must be decentralized," says Paul Antoine Bienamie, Haiti’s interior minister. "The people must go back to the farms."
Jean-Robert Estime, the nation’s former foreign minister and now head of an American-backed agricultural organization, says the quake six months ago would not have been anywhere so devastating if the country had not neglected its farms.
"The farms failed, the people came to the city looking for work,” says Estime, the son of a former Haitian president. "They crowded into slums and were killed by the thousands when the earthquake happened."
More than that, Haiti, Estime says, "is an environmental disaster” because its forests have been denuded—98 percent of its tree cover has been removed, most of it for charcoal. Without wood, people built with concrete—concrete that collapsed and killed some 233,000 people.
But Haiti cannot force its people back to the rural areas that are so different from Port-au-Prince. Uncrowded, green, slow-paced. Places where young men wearing NBA jerseys ride horses and old women go to market atop donkeys. The air outside the cities carries none of the smell of smoke and open sewers, its lanes and pathways are clear of the garbage that mounts daily on the streets of the city.
"This is life here," says Myl, who raised three children who all went into the city. He will not go there, to Port-au-Prince. "To be old in Port-au-Prince is to die."
Seems odd to say he is old at 54 but here, according to government statistics, the average life expectancy is 47. Death came early to Haitians even before Jan. 12.
Myl says living on the land is hard. He says he worked a number of farms in the area, but they failed. "I will always try again," he says.
The rice paddies he is working now are not his. They belong to Estime’s program, an effort backed by $127 million from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). It goes by the optimistic acronym WINNER (Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources). Myl and scores of other farmers have been hired to cultivate the program’s fields and learn new ways of farming.
This is not high technology. The farmers have cultivated two fields, one using traditional methods—throwing a pile of seeds into rows of small holes, the other using a new method, planting a single, pre-germinated seed in each hole.
"The rice grows quicker and there is far more yield per hectare," says Jean Parnell Dimanche, a director of the program.
The results are obvious. The experimental paddy is thriving, the old method has produced little.
Other sections of the farms owned by the program show similar results. New sorghum plants from the United States are smaller but more resistant to wind; much of Haiti’s sorghum plant is destroyed by hurricanes. Corn planted in basins drowned by rains, so the farmers are taught how to plant in rows.
Myl says he is impressed by the increased yields, resistance, and durability of new crops and new methods of cultivation, but Dimanche concedes Haitian farmers are notoriously resistant to change. He hopes the farmers he trains will, through their cooperative associations, teach others to do the same.
Maybe. Asked whether he will use these new techniques, the weathered farmer shrugs.
"I could use a tractor," says Emile Myl.