Although Canada is helping to fight hunger, the United Nations (UN) warns that the political chaos reigning in Haiti puts the country at risk of famine, while farmers are being kidnapped.
“This is not the usual chronic food crisis in Haiti. It is extremely serious, explains Jean-Martin Bauer, national director of the World Food Program for Haiti. It is very difficult to organize a peaceful election with a starving population. »
In an assessment last October, some 20,000 people in Haiti were classified as catastrophically food insecure, which Bauer said is the first time people in the Americas have been characterized as being catastrophically food insecure. at risk of starvation.
The hardest-hit population lives in Cité Soleil, a gang-controlled area of the capital, Port-au-Prince, where residents face conditions more often seen in Somalia and Afghanistan, says Ms. Bauer.
Some five million people — half of the country’s population — are currently in the “crisis” stage of food insecurity, the third level out of five in the integrated food security phase classification. They face higher than average levels of malnutrition.
Those at “catastrophic” risk are at level five. As soon as 20% of a population reaches this stage, it is considered to be suffering from famine.
Hunger fuels gangs and is exacerbated by armed groups, Bauer said. Haiti entered a political crisis in mid-2021 with the assassination of its president. The country has since been ruled by de facto President Ariel Henry, under whose leadership the gangs have filled a power vacuum.
Mr Henry has called for a foreign army to step in to wipe out the gangs, an idea Washington backs but which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has warned could backfire. This month, a House of Commons committee advised against sending Canadian troops.
Ottawa’s approach has been to provide intelligence support to police and sanction elites suspected of empowering gangs, in hopes of building political consensus among Haitians on how the community international should intervene.
A worsening crisis
The UN says gangs now control 80% of Port-au-Prince, although local groups have even higher estimates. Gangs often seize or tax food, whether it arrives in the capital from rural areas or from abroad via ports.
Climate change and rising fuel prices in Haiti have exacerbated a hunger crisis that stems from problems that have lasted for decades, Bauer said.
The number of Haitians in acute food need has tripled since Hurricane Matthew hit the island in 2016, amid a series of droughts and problems importing food.
“What worries me is that the problems that caused this food crisis are getting worse,” said Mr. Bauer.
Haiti imports half of its food, which is why gang blockades cause so much chaos. Haitians use rice as a staple food, but the country imports 80% of this crop, due to disastrous market liberalization measures taken in 1994 under US pressure, for which US President Bill Clinton has since apologized.
“Small farmers have been crushed. They are not able to compete in the open market. And hence you have a migration [urbain] and increased vulnerability in rural areas,” says Bauer.
Food price inflation in Haiti has reached 50%, and the World Bank says it will increase rapidly.
In recent months, gangs have begun to take over parts of Haiti’s breadbasket, the Artibonite Valley, where Mr Bauer said farmers were being kidnapped for ransom. Gangs extort farmers for access to irrigation systems, or chase them away in order to rent productive farmland.
Glimmer of hope
Concerned about this expansion of armed groups in rural areas, Mr. Bauer notes, however, that the UN has helped to reverse the trend, with the help of Canadians.
The World Food Program has set up a school meals initiative in which the organization buys crops from farmers and then asks a team to prepare healthy meals for the children. This helps hire local workers and gives children the nutrients they need to learn.
The number of children receiving a daily meal through this program has increased from 93,000 last fall to 183,000 by mid-April, largely thanks to donations from Canadians and the federal government.
“It shows that if we give farmers a chance, they will respond to the supply stimulus we are giving them,” says Bauer.
The organization has also launched a micro-insurance project that protects $5 million in assets held by small farmers, to prevent them from throwing in the towel and becoming urban poor. She also distributes cash to people so they can choose the foods they love while supporting the local economy.
Last month, the United Nations published a humanitarian response plan for Haiti, of which 60% of the requested funds are earmarked for food and agriculture.
According to Mr. Bauer, this situation reflects reality: growing hunger makes it more difficult to fight against other ills, whether it is stemming an Pandemic of cholera or stopping the recruitment of young people by gangs.
“Food security happens to be one of the building blocks of human security. And we have to fix it in order to help Haiti get out of its current situation,” said the aid worker.