In the Cul-de-Sac basin outside Port-au-Prince, a farmer stands next to a fledgling mango tree as he tends his sorghum along the steep mountainside. In the past there was little to keep his topsoil from eroding and clogging the Rivière Grise in the plains below, but not this tree’s tender roots can one day hold the soil in place.
In much of the world, a fruit tree along a mountain ridge would be an unremarkable sight. But in Haiti, this tree is a symbol of hope that USAID’s fiveyear, Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources (WINNER) program can help secure the country’s food supply by stabilizing selected watersheds using a comprehensive, holistic approach.
Since 2009, WINNER has helped Haiti’s farmers protect their land against extreme weather, prevent soil erosion, and improve agricultural productivity through integrated activities across entire watersheds. Since the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010, its effective watershed approach has focused heavily on food security under the Feed the Future Initiative.
About 60 percent of Haiti’s nine million people are farmers, but the country still imports more than 50 percent of its food. Haitian food production, processing, and marketing have been in decline for years. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), approximately 80 percent of Haiti’s population lives below the poverty line, and more than 60 percent cannot access sufficient food to eat due to lack of production and income. Rapid population growth led farmers to cultivate annual crops using traditional farming methods on Haiti’s steep hillsides once flat land was no longer available. This caused too much sediment to drop into rivers and irrigation canals below. This clogging of the canals lowered agricultural productivity and made crops more vulnerable to damage and flooding during the Caribbean’s long, punishing hurricane season. Haiti’s beleaguered watersheds needed attention from top to bottom.
WINNER’s innovative, watershed-based approach has done just that. Up in the mountains, long term efforts such as tree and grass planting, and short term efforts to build dry stone walls are beginning to halt the erosion caused by decades of poor management and protect the work in the plains below. Downstream, the massive undertaking to dredge irrigation and drainage canals and re-profile rivers is reversing the damage caused by severe sedimentation. Across the entire watershed, farmers are being trained in modern farming techniques to help them preserve the gains made. The result is that while the watersheds improve, production and incomes increase simultaneously.
“You need to have healthy watersheds upstream to have productive plains downstream,” said Mario Kerby, deputy chief of party for WINNER at Chemonics International, USAID’s implementing partner. Working with the Government of Haiti and FAO, USAID’s WINNER program taps into a network of more than 200 farmer associations and community-based organizations in the Cul-deSac, Cabaret, Mirebalais, and Arcahaie regions.
It is none too soon. “Deforestation and traditional agricultural practices have resulted in loss of soil fertility,” said Mr. Kerby. “Farming on Haiti’s steep slopes leads to loss of topsoil, to the point where farmers can no longer grow their crops.” WINNER’s reforestation and grass planting efforts will be critical for stabilizing hillsides and keeping rivers and canals flowing below, complementing the efforts to open up the waterways. WINNER has also introduced vertical agriculture and greenhouses, which use smaller areas to gain higher yields. Therefore, farmers can replant using agroforestry on areas of land no longer required for crops. Eighty percent of the program’s new trees bear cash crops like mangoes, giving farmers an incentive to plant the trees and care for them.
WINNER also addresses the gullies formed by the erosion of mountainsides during heavy rains. The program employs simple, cost-effective methods to temporarily conserve soil on hillsides while the reforested trees can take the time to grow strong roots. Local farmers are hired to construct dry stone walls and gully plugs at regular intervals, which slow the flow of water and reduce the runoff that clogs rivers and irrigation systems below. The WINNER project also sets up water catchments to collect the rain, allowing farmers to grow crops year round and earn the income from their sales.
Minimizing erosion upstream protects USAID’s work to restore rivers and irrigation canals downstream that were still choked by decades of sedimentation. La Quinte River and several sections of the Rivière Grise have been dredged and irrigation canals extended and updated. “Now, water reaches more farms, and formerly uncultivated areas are producing food. There are beans there for the first time in 20 years,” said Senior USAID Agronomist, James Woolley. The dredging and enlarging of rivers, such as the La Quinte river, protected the city of Gonaives from the ravages of hurricane Thomas in 2010. To sustain the program, newly established water user associations collect fees that maintain the canals, keeping them from getting clogged again, he added.
Due to lack of access to improved agricultural production technologies and agricultural inputs, farming techniques have become antiquated, lowering the country’s agricultural productivity. Inefficient use of water resources has also led to a decrease in water availability. Through WINNER, farmers are educated in watershed protection at all levels. The project established seven rural centers for sustainable development to demonstrate best farming practices, encourage alternatives to charcoal production, conduct Master Farmer training courses, and provide access to innovative science and technological advances. “If you can produce food locally and bring it to local markets, it increases food security and income for the country’s poorest communities,” said Mr. Kerby.
With USAID’s comprehensive assistance, Haiti’s farmers dramatically increased their yields. Total food production on WINNER-supported farms in the spring 2010 planting season increased by 75 percent over 2009. Average production of corn increased by 118 percent, beans by 100 percent, sorghum by 139 percent, and potatoes by 18 percent. In 2011, increases in productivity yielded $10 million in gross margin for farmers. “I have been a farmer for five years and I used to barely scrape by,” said Ronald Champagne, a member of a farmer’s association in Duvivier. “I am producing a lot more since I received WINNER assistance, and my products are of better quality. Because my income has increased, I can now plant hot peppers and eggplant that sell very well. Before WINNER, I could not afford to plant these crops. Now I can afford more things for my son. My family is doing much better.”
Not all aspects of the project have been easy to implement, however. Getting farmers to change their practices required convincing. For instance, long established rice growing techniques used large clumps of seeds and vast amounts of water and pesticides. At first, farmers were not willing to stake their farms on new techniques, but demonstration plots proved to be a very effective, risk-free way to show farmers how to gain significantly higher rice yields with half the seeds, dramatically less water, and fewer pesticides. According to Mr. Kerby, rice yields from the new System of Rice Intensification are usually more than double the average yields from traditional methods. Reversing Haiti’s environmental and agricultural deterioration requires focused efforts across its watersheds. USAID’s WINNER project and its holistic approach were adapted from best practices for watershed management used around the world by Canada, Spain, France, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the United Nations Development Program. The program’s agricultural results provide hope that food security is possible.
Today, the mango sapling in the Cul-de-Sac basin is as delicate as the watershed’s recovery. But if well-tended, that tree will bear fruit for centuries. And as it matures, its roots will spread deep and wide, securing everything around it: the soil, the farmer’s livelihood, and the future of Haiti’s food supply.
Last updated: September 20, 2013