Published: September 2008
Dirt Poor
Haiti has lost its soil and the means to feed itself.
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
National Geographic Contributing Writer

Rice makes up 20 percent of the typical Haitian’s diet, and that percentage is growing. In 1981 Haiti imported 18,000 tons of rice. Now the country imports close to 400,000 tons annually. Less than a quarter is homegrown.

Tè a fatige,” said 70 percent of Haitian farmers in a recent survey when asked about the major agricultural problems they faced. “The earth is tired.”

And no wonder. Virtually since 1492, when Columbus first set foot on the heavily forested island of Hispaniola, the mountainous nation has shed both topsoil and blood—first to the Spanish, who planted sugar, then to the French, who cut down the forests to make room for lucrative coffee, indigo, and tobacco. Even after Haitian slaves revolted in 1804 and threw off the yoke of colonialism, France collected 93 million francs in restitution from its former colony—much of it in timber. Soon after independence, upper-class speculators and planters pushed the peasant classes out of the few fertile valleys and into the steep, forested rural areas, where their shrinking, intensively cultivated plots of maize, beans, and cassava have combined with a growing fuelwood-charcoal industry to exacerbate deforestation and soil loss. Today less than 4 percent of Haiti’s forests remain, and in many places the soil has eroded right down to the bedrock. From 1991 to 2002, food production per capita actually fell 30 percent.

So what do you do if you live in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and the price of the primary carbohydrate—“Miami rice” from the U.S.—doubles? Mostly, you go hungry and watch your children do the same.

But there is more at stake than simply the ability of Haitian soil to feed a starving nation. Food-importing nations around the world also are suffering as the prices of staples skyrocket, raising critical questions about the goals of agricultural-assistance programs that over the past few decades have focused more on reducing tariffs and growing crops for export than on helping poor nations feed themselves.

That’s as it should be, officials say. “Food self-sufficiency is not necessarily the goal,” says Beth Cypser, deputy director of the U.S. Agency for International Development mission in Haiti. “Right now there is food in Haiti. It’s just the price is out of reach. If it makes sense economically for them to sell mangoes and import rice, then that’s what they should do.”

The problem, says ecologist and activist Sasha Kramer, is that these days Haitian farmers can’t sell enough mangoes to afford imported rice. To boost food production, Kramer and colleagues founded Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), a nonprofit group that builds composting toilets in rural communities to get much needed organic matter and fertility back into fields. “With the current hunger crisis, it’s very clear,” says Kramer, an adjunct professor at the University of Miami. “If Haitians had more local production, they would not be so vulnerable to imported food prices.”

Until then Haiti remains a poignant lesson in what soil scientists have preached for years: As a nation’s soil goes, so goes the nation.