The hardship of hunger abounds amid the stone homes and teepee-like huts in the mountains along Haiti’s southern coast.
The hair on broomstick-thin children has turned patchy and orangish, their stomachs have ballooned to the size of their heads and many look half their age — the tell-tale signs of malnutrition. Mabriole Town official Geneus Lissage fears that death is imminent for these children if Haitian authorities and humanitarian workers do not do more to stem the hunger problems.
“They will be counting bodies,” Lissage said, “because malnutrition is ravaging children, youngsters and babies.”
Three years after an earthquake killed hundreds of thousands and the US promised that Haiti would “build back better,” hunger is worse than ever.
Despite billions of US dollars from around the world pledged toward rebuilding efforts, the country’s food problems underscore just how vulnerable its 10 million people remain.
In 1997 about 1.2 million Haitians did not have enough food to eat. A decade later the number had more than doubled. Today, that figure is 6.7 million, or a staggering 67 percent of the population that goes without food some days, cannot afford a balanced diet or has limited access to food, according to surveys by the Haitian government’s National Coordination of Food Security. As many as 1.5 million of those face malnutrition and other hunger-related problems.
“This is scandalous. This should not be,” said Claude Beauboeuf, a Haitian economist and sometime consultant to relief groups. “But I’m not surprised, because some of the people in the slums eat once every two days.”
Much of the crisis stems from too little rain, and then too much. A drought last year destroyed key crops, followed by flooding caused by the outer bands of Tropical Storm Isaac and Hurricane Sandy. Haiti has had similarly destructive storms over the past decade, and scientists say they expect to see more as global climate change provokes severe weather systems.
The government’s Economic and Social Assistance Fund general director Klaus Eberwein 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.”
Many people have been forced to buy on credit, or look for the cheapest food available while eating smaller and fewer portions. Some families have asked relatives to take care of their children, or handed them over to orphanages so they have one less mouth to feed, humanitarian workers say.
Political decisions already had hurt the ability of Haitian farmers to feed the country. One example: Prodded by the administration of then-US president Bill Clinton, Haiti cut tariffs on imported US 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.