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An experiment in Haiti is making once-arid lands fertile, and poor farmers into money-makers

Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

LIMONADE, Haiti — At first sight, the nearly four acres of farmland in this rural hamlet in northeast Haiti resembles more of a desert than a thriving agricultural experiment. The soil is brown and barren, battered by a lack of water and neglect.

But walk further inland and the seemingly lifeless terrain soon turns green: Cabbages and pumpkins rise out of the ground, papayas hang from trees and workers plant rows of hot peppers in the freshly plowed dirt as a generator hisses in the background.

A year ago, such a lush landscape was unimaginable for Fransik Monchèr, a farmer and father of seven who couldn’t even grow fiery habanero peppers because they quickly died.

All that changed the day a group of entrepreneurs decided to take a gamble to launch a socioeconomic experiment with the goal of answering a simple, but daunting question: What if a Haitian farmer, like Monchèr, had everything he needed to be a successful grower?

“That farmer who has the land, how do you get him to upgrade his way of production — and how do we recuperate that cost?” said Maxwell Marcelin, one of the entrepreneurs.

The quest for the answers has birthed an unusual partnership among four Port-au-Prince-based friends and entrepreneurs, and local farmers and agronomists in northern Haiti. Together, they are pushing locally grown peppers and sweet potatoes while also aiding farmers like Monchèr in transforming their sun-scorched land, restoring hope in the only livelihood they’ve known: agriculture.

 

Though 75% of Haiti’s population lives in rural areas, the country can’t feed itself. Nearly half of the population, 4.9 million people, are experiencing acute hunger, according to the United Nations. The blame, the U.N. says, can be placed on a number of factors, including poor irrigation systems, lack of capital, political instability and the intensifying gang violence that has spread beyond the capital of Port-au-Prince to rural areas.

In areas where gangs are not occupying farmland or distribution routes, small-scale farmers are fighting to grow crops with limited or no government support. Crops fail due to increasingly frequent and severe droughts and tropical storms, and higher-than-average temperatures.

None of it makes for a hopeful scenario where agriculture can once more become the driving economic force in the countryside.

“Everybody is locked into the idea that it can’t be done,” said Geoffrey Handal, the accounting and logistics expert in the friends’ group, who challenges such pessimism. “We have all of the qualified agronomists, we have all of the techniques needed, we have all of the land, we have all of the water, we have everything.”

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