- TRENTON DANIEL – Associated Press (AP)
Three years after an earthquake killed hundreds of thousands and the U.S. promised that Haiti would “build back better,” hunger is worse than ever. Despite billions of dollars from around the world pledged toward rebuilding efforts, the country’s food problems underscore just how vulnerable its 10 million people remain.
Klaus Eberwein, general director of the government’s Economic and Social Assistance Fund, said: “We are really trying our best. It’s not like we’re sitting here and not working on it. We have limited resources.”
He attributed Haiti’s current hunger woes to “decades of bad political decisions” and, more recently, to last year’s storms and drought. “Hunger is not new in Haiti,” Eberwein said. “You can’t address the hunger situation in one year, two years.”
Political decisions already had hurt the ability of Haitian farmers to feed the country. One example: Prodded by the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton, Haiti cut tariffs on imported U.S. rice, driving many locals out of the market.
Eighty percent of Haiti’s rice — and half of all its food — is imported now. Three decades ago, Haiti imported only 19 percent of its food and produced enough rice to export. Factories built in the capital at the same time did little to help: They led farmers to abandon their fields in the countryside in hope of higher wages.
At the same time, Haiti has lost almost all of its forest cover as desperately poor Haitians chop down trees to make charcoal. The widespread deforestation does little to contain heavy rainfall or yield crop-producing soil.
With so much depending on imports, meals are becoming less affordable as the value of Haiti’s currency depreciates against the U.S. dollar. Haiti’s minimum wage is 200 gourdes a day. Late last year, that salary was equivalent to about $4.75; today it’s about $4.54 — a small difference that makes a big strain on the Haitian budget.
“Some people eat by miracle,” said Falide Cerve, 51, a part-time merchant and single mother of five.
That has hurt education, too. The Gauthier schoolhouse, with its tin walls and dirt floor, can hold 100 students, but only 43 enrolled. The children are too hungry to learn.
“They’re too distracted, and I have to send them home,” said Sainvileun, the pastor who runs the tiny schoolhouse.