Fri | Aug 18, 2017

A decade of crop loss from Hurricane Matthew in Haiti

Published:Wednesday | October 19, 2016 | 10:00 AM
In this October12, 2016 photo, Maniki Cadet, 67, works in a field removing dead banana trees and shoring up the foundations of others, near Les Cayes, Haiti, after Hurricane Matthew. There are widespread reports of rising prices in the outdoor markets that line the region's rural roads and of people struggling to find food. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Women carry laundry across a stream running through fields and fruit trees, in a village outside Les Cayes, Haiti, Wednesday, October 12, 2016. Hurricane Matthew's winds uprooted coconut trees, shattered banana plantations and flattened vegetable fields across the southwest. In some coastal towns, flooding even carried away livestock. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
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Haitian and international agricultural officials say it could be a decade or more before the southwestern peninsula recovers economically from Hurricane Matthew, which struck hard at the rugged region of more than one million people that is almost completely dependent on farming and fishing.

The Civil Protection agency said Friday that the death toll from Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall on October 4, had risen to 546, though it was likely to climb higher as reports continued to trickle in from remote areas. Likewise, the statistics about economic losses are still approximate, but appear to be catastrophic.

In the Grand-Anse region, nearly 100 per cent of crops and 50 per cent of livestock were destroyed, according to the World Food Programme. On the outskirts of Les Cayes, where Jean-Baptiste lives, more than 90 per cent of crops were lost and the fishing industry was "paralysed" as material and equipment washed away, the organisation said.

Replanting vegetable crops can be done relatively quickly and rice fields begin to recover as floodwaters recede, but the loss of mature fruit trees that families nurtured for a generation is a staggering blow.

"It will take at least 10 years for nature to do what it needs to do to grow the trees back," said Elancie Moise, an agronomist and senior agriculture ministry official in the south.

Grapefruit, banana and avocado trees were wiped out along with important root crops such as yams, which were inundated with water or damaged by the whipping wind, Moise said. Vetiver, a grass that is used to produce fragrances and is an important export for Haiti, appears to have sustained some root damage but may be one of the few crops to make it, he added.

RISING PRICES

There are widespread reports of rising prices in the outdoor markets that line the region's rural roads and of people struggling to find food. "Already there are some people, if you ask them what they ate for dinner last night, they won't be able to answer you," Moise said.

This is a region that only recently began recovering from a drought that had decreased crop production by half.

Now, farmers are wading through the ankle-deep water in their rice fields desperately searching for stalks that may have survived and can still be sold. Many have nothing to salvage. Trees such as breadfruit and coconut palms can't even be sold for charcoal because the wood isn't suitable. People are also trying to save what fruit they can, but most wasn't yet ripe.

"It took a long time for these trees to get strong and now all my coffee has been lost. Our plantains and vegetables, everything is gone," said Rico Lifete, who works a small plot in the craggy mountains outside the coastal city of Jeremie and managed to save his dozen chickens by keeping them inside his stone-and-stucco shack with his family.

Haiti as a whole is largely deforested, with an estimated 2 per cent of its original forest cover left because of decades of misuse of the land and the cutting of trees to make charcoal for cooking.

But this western peninsula that juts out along the Caribbean Sea had been comparatively lush. It includes the cloud-shrouded mountains of Pic Macaya National Park, which was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2016. Until Hurricane Matthew, the narrow roads along the coast were shaded by soaring rows of palms.

Now, it looks like the whole place has been put through a blender. The palms, those that haven't crashed through the roofs of houses and churches, look like they were given a bad haircut, crudely hacked away at the top.

International aid groups say the widespread crop damage will require an influx of seed packs for replanting once the immediate needs of emergency water, food and medicine are met.

"We are aware that it will be more effective to distribute seeds to farmers timed with their next planting season, in early 2017, ideally with fertiliser or compost to help replenish the soil which has been flooded in saltwater," said Jean-Claude Fignole, a senior Oxfam official in Haiti.

A 'flash appeal' for Haiti, issued by the UN humanitarian agency in Geneva, was not getting anywhere near the level of support officials are seeking, with only about 5 per cent pledged so far of the US$120 million requested.

- AP