Re­build­ing af­ter hur­ri­cane Matthew

Many vic­tims in Haiti feel aban­doned nine months later as the aid stops and there’s nowhere to turn for help

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOCUS - JAC­QUE­LINE CHARLES

A feisty Vanette Joseph slowly nav­i­gates her way through a field of de­bris, pass­ing bro­ken branches and other re­minders of last year’s dev­as­tat­ing 275 km/h hur­ri­cane be­fore spy­ing one of her few sur­viv­ing plants.

“All of the lime trees were de­stroyed,” she says as some­thing catches her eye. She moves in for a closer look.

Much like hur­ri­cane Matthew put a choke­hold on her liveli­hood, an in­va­sive coil­ing vine has got hold of the lone stand­ing lime tree, and Joseph, 91, isn’t happy. So the de­ter­mined farmer pushes her eye­glasses on top of her fore­head, reaches in and starts pulling.

“I had 100 co­conut trees,” she said. “They used to give me at least 10 sacks to send to Port-au-Prince. Now, I can’t even find one co­conut to put in some rice to eat.”

For most of her life Joseph has been self-suf­fi­cient, build­ing a life off of co­conut, bread­fruit, plan­tain, man­goes and other crops, which she and her late hus­band planted in this west­ern bread­bas­ket, 275 kilo­me­tres from Haiti’s cap­i­tal city of Port-au-Prince.

Then hur­ri­cane Matthew rum­bled through in Oc­to­ber and up­rooted it all, leav­ing be­hind $2.8 bil­lion in dam­age.

In Matthew’s im­me­di­ate af­ter­math, UN and non­govern­men­tal agen­cies trucked and flew in thou­sands of met­ric tons of rice and veg­etable oil and distributed emer­gency tarps to storm vic­tims all along Haiti’s south­ern penin­sula, where the storm’s Cat­e­gory 4 winds hit. And when re­ports of hunger sur­faced in this ru­ral plain and other storm-rav­aged com­mu­ni­ties ear­lier this year, they stepped in to do more.

But nine months af­ter Matthew’s pas­sage, the free rice ra­tions have stopped and food short­ages have been re­placed with un­af­ford­able high­priced sta­ples. Once lo­cally avail­able, they are now be­ing trucked in. All along the penin­sula, peas­ants who have been ek­ing out a meagre ex­is­tence by sub­sis­tence farm­ing and fish­ing say they’ve been left to fend for them­selves amid a painfully slow re­cov­ery and an­other hur­ri­cane sea­son.

They feel aban­doned, they say, by for­eign aid donors and politi­cians as they strug­gle to re­build their lives, not just from Matthew’s wreck­age, which left them with mas­sive loss of rev­enues, but from the heavy rain and drought that en­sued and turned their har­vest to dust.

“We can spend 30 years and we’ll never bounce back,” said Du­vanel Fran­cois, 42, who is try­ing to earn enough to pay for school-exam fees in the ru­ral out­skirts of the sea­side city of Jeremie by help­ing an­other farmer re­build his home. “We used to have plan­tains; we don’t have any. We used to have or­anges as fruits; we don’t have any. We had av­o­ca­dos, pota­toes. Th­ese were our oxy­gen. Once you lose them, you’ve lost ev­ery­thing.”

Fran­cois was among sev­eral men shov­el­ling clay-coloured soil. Lo­cated off a rut­ted, cratered part of the des­o­lated na­tional road that leads into the Grand’Anse, one of Haiti’s 10 ge­o­graph­i­cal de­part­ments on the south­west coast, the con­struc­tion site was an od­dity. Even though shiny new metal roofs dot the re­gion’s once-again­green land­scape, most homes re­main in dis­re­pair, their oc­cu­pants shut­tered in deeper mis­ery, their only eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity the mak­ing of char­coal.

Proud that his pre-Matthew earn­ings had en­abled him to school six chil­dren, Fran­cois said he only man­aged this school year be­cause fees were waived. But with no such luck with up­com­ing fi­nal exams, he had no other choice, he said, but to seek out odd jobs in hopes of rais­ing $4.

“The weather took ev­ery­thing,” he said. To make ends meet he had put up a piece of his prop­erty for sale but found no tak­ers. “I’m fight­ing, but I’ve yet to have any­one from the gov­ern­ment or mayor’s of­fice come give me a hand.”

Late last month, Pres­i­dent Jovenel Moise de­clared a state of emer­gency for the storm-hit re­gions. Com­ing nearly nine months af­ter Matthew, the June 30 pres­i­den­tial de­cree came one day be­fore a car­a­van of ex­ca­va­tors and other state-owned earth­mov­ing equip­ment rolled out of the rice-grow­ing Art­i­bonite Val­ley to the south as part of Moise’s ‘Car­a­van of Change’ ini­tia­tive he launched af­ter tak­ing of­fice on Feb. 7.

Some Haitians, like agri­cul­tural spe­cial­ist Jean-Marie Pam­phile, who has been help­ing Joseph clear her land so she can ben­e­fit from a Catholic Re­lief Ser­vices re­plant­ing pro­gram, have a lot of hope that the car­a­van, which ar­rived in the Grand’Anse Fri­day, can help bring much of the storm-rav­aged land back to life.

The CRS pro­gram is pay­ing $1 per ca­cao tree and 50 cents per ba­nana tree (for as many as 100 of each tree) to get about 7,000 farm­ers to di­ver­sify their food and in­come, and ex­pand their ca­cao gar­dens. But it re­quires an in­vest­ment — money many don’t have.

“I should eas­ily be able to re­cruit 117 peo­ple,” said Pam­phile, who has been try­ing to en­rol farm­ers in the CRS pro­gram. “But while a lot of peo­ple have of­fered up their names, they can’t plant be­cause they don’t have the funds to pre­pare their land.”

Fish­er­man Re­cil­home St. Firmin, on the other hand, says he doesn’t have much faith in the car­a­van, which is get­ting some fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance from the In­ter-Amer­i­can De­vel­op­ment Bank but has been dis­missed by crit­ics as po­lit­i­cal cin­ema.

“There won’t be any change,” said St. Firmin, who lives on the coastal out­skirts of Port Sa­lut, about four hours south of the Grand’Anse.

Like many in Port Sa­lut, which has gone from be­ing a vi­brant tourist town to a place seem­ingly de­void of life af­ter los­ing more than a dozen of its ho­tels to Matthew, St. Firmin thought the hur­ri­cane’s deadly pas­sage would bring an im­me­di­ate in­jec­tion of cash and re­con­struc­tion along the coast.

“I don’t think they’ve for­got­ten us,” he said of donors and the Haitian gov­ern­ment. “I just think they aren’t con­cerned with us. If they were con­cerned about our well-be­ing they would have been help­ing since Matthew passed. Noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble.”

Ef­forts to in­ter­view Prime Min­is­ter Jack Guy La­fontant were not suc­cess­ful.

Last month, the Haitian gov­ern­ment re­leased an am­bi­tious $2.2 bil­lion US bud­get doc­u­ment. But while agri­cul­ture — Moise’s key cam­paign plat­form — re­ceived a 43 per cent boost, its pro­posed al­lo­ca­tion is still $110 mil­lion less than the $249 mil­lion al­lo­cated for pub­lic works, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis Group Crois­sance, a Port-au-Prince eco­nomic think tank. One of the big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the bud­get: the Haitian par­lia­ment, with a 74 per cent boost in its yearly al­lo­ca­tion.

“When you look at this bud­get, the big­gest ques­tion is how it will be fi­nanced,” said econ­o­mist Rock An­dre, a con­sul­tant for Group Crois­sance. He added that for­eign aid has de­creased to $3.8 mil­lion and Haiti has never col­lected $1.4 bil­lion in ex­pected rev­enues.

Be­fore the storm shred­ded her co­conut and bread­fruit trees, Marie-Lu­ci­enne Du­vert eked out a liv­ing sell­ing whole­sale to street mer­chants in Por­tau-Prince. Since Matthew, she has had to be­come a mar­ket ven­dor her­self, she said, spend­ing three days a week at a mar­ket near her home in Morne La Source on the ru­ral out­skirts of Les Cayes.

She started the busi­ness with four high-in­ter­est loans to­talling $1,100. Af­ter a heavy down­pour ru­ined her mer­chan­dise, she had no other choice but to tap the funds to re­place her eroded metal roof and up­grade her stor­m­dam­aged wood-frame house.

“No­body ever came by and of­fered any help,” she said. “When you have debt, there is no such thing as sleep.”

Koldo Echebar­ria, the In­ter-Amer­i­can De­vel­op­ment Bank’s Haiti rep­re­sen­ta­tive, said the in­sti­tu­tion will reroute about $85 mil­lion of its funds to re­con­struc­tion ef­forts in the south. The money will fund road re­pairs, along with schools, wa­ter treat­ment plants and flood pre­ven­tion.

PA­TRICK FAR­RELL, TNS

Elmi­dieu Se­ri­ate, a fa­ther of three, says he jour­neys to the shore­lines on the out­skirts of Les Cayes in south­ern Haiti ev­ery day from his moun­tain home in hopes of find­ing enough fish to sell.

Top: Women in Im­passe Beauzile cook­ing rice and beans at a "com­mu­nity restau­rant.”

Vanette Joseph, 91, is de­ter­mined to plant, she says, af­ter los­ing 100 co­conut trees.

Above: A young boy walks through farmer Vanette Joseph’s de­stroyed prop­erty.

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