On the 7th of May, the new Haitian president Jovenel Moïse celebrated his first 100 days in office. During those first 100 days, he launched his flagship programme ‘Caravan for Change’. The project started in the Valley of Artibonite, the main area for rice production in Haiti. The president would like to keep his electoral promise to bring together earth, water, sun, male and female Haitians, to make the country prosper. His stated objective: to relaunch the agricultural production by exploiting on short notice 32,000 hectares of irrigable land in a valley where up to now only 12,000 hectares are in use.
The president threw all his weight in the balance, when he ordered heavy equipment (tractors, trucks, dredgers) from the Ministry of Public Works for repairing 197 kilometers of irrigation canals that facilitate the transport of water to land that had dried up since many years. Moïse divides his time between the National Palace and the construction site which he visits every week since the start of the construction works on the 1st of May 2017. All this is accompanied with large propaganda and lots of media spots, in which the President is portrayed as the only actor-in-charge. The operations have already costed more than 100 million Haitian gourdes (approx. €1,400,000) from the State’s budget, only to guarantee the President’s security during his visits to the Artibonite.
In the Artibonite, the people welcome the initiative, especially in those areas that since years had ceased to benefit from the irrigation system due to lack of maintenance. But they ask how long it will last, since no institutional or technical assistance is visible till now. While the world applauds the stated objective of the President to reduce the country’s dependence on food imports, many people remain sceptic. The initiative is not sufficiently grounded in technical, economic and social data. It does not figure in a larger agricultural policy strategy. In fact, the President wants to lower rice imports from the current 500,000 tons per year to 300,000 tons at the end of his mandate. That’s very ambitious, because to get there, many more parameters need to be changed, e.g. the liberal customs policies which have permitted, over 30 years, to lower import taxes on rice from 30% to less than 3%. In fact, Haiti is the country with the lowest customs tariffs in the region, which facilitates the import on its territory of agricultural products from all over the world, especially from the Dominican Republic, at a cost which is much lower than products from Haitian farmers who receive virtually no support from the Haitian state.
Till today, the ambitious project of the President has been silent on land rights issues which represent serious obstacles to agricultural development in Haiti. The President totally ignores the public and private institutions that are involved in the agricultural sector in the Artibonite, like farmers organisations that manage the irrigation system which he is renovating in the area. He is the only ‘chef’ in charge, and all other structures seem to have disappeared.
Agriculture or rice culture?
“On the first of May, the day for Agriculture and Labour, I had expected the President to announce a programme for the relaunch of agricultural production throughout the country, not only the production of rice, but also other cultures which enable us to live. I was really disappointed. What he is doing in the Artibonite benefits only a minority which lives in the valley, and not the majority of small farmers”, declared a farmer of the organization Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen. Even while he has started with the Valley of the Artibonite, the farmers had expected a Presidential declaration which would have made them understand the direction he is heading towards. Though many Haitians consume rice, there are also other products which have a big place in their daily consumption, like maize, bananas and yam. Those other cultures do not yet figure on the President’s agenda. No strategy at all has been announced for the mountainous regions, in a country where 70% of the mountain slopes has suffered strongly from erosion.
For many people, the announced change should be integral and not only concern agriculture. For the rural areas it should also mean access to basic services, like education, health, decent housing, and drinkable water, conditions sine qua non to enable farmers to accumulate capital which can be reinvested in agriculture. While the President is launching his ‘Caravan for Change’ in the Artibonite, many schools in that region and in the rest of the country are closed, because of teachers on strike who did not receive their salaries for several months.
The next stop of the Caravan for Change will be in the Grand Sud, which has been completely ravaged by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Everybody is hoping that, on that occasion, the President will give more information on his strategy, which should strongly take into account the mountainous areas, considering the bumpy geography of the Grand Sud. This will be a serious test for Président Jovenel Moïse’s real intentions for the development of the agricultural sector.