Haiti: Cultivating the green shoots of recovery

How micro-credit is helping Haiti's farmers stand on their own feet
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Haiti is the least developed country in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the poorest. More than half its population is unemployed and 70 per cent rely on the land for food and income.

But Haiti's land is becoming increasingly difficult to farm due to extensive deforestation for charcoal production. Eighty years ago, forests covered nearly 60 per cent of the country. Today that figure is just 2 per cent. Soil erosion caused by the deforestation has led to falling agricultural yields and an increasing number of deadly landslides. With unemployment and lack of income further hampering the ability of families to produce or buying their own food, up to 50 per cent of Haiti's population is malnourished.

The situation in Haiti is particularly dire for women, for whom agriculture is the principal source of income. Coupled with this is the fact that women in Haiti constitute the majority of the poor, due to the male-dominated society's inherent gender discrimination.

ActionAid has been operating in Haiti since 1996, when it established a priority project to help women gain financial independence and food security for themselves and their families. ActionAid's focus is on working with local communities to help them to help themselves out of poverty.

Its Haiti project is based in Lascahobas, which is situated in the country's lower central plateau. It is a remote, rural area, which depends on agriculture and local trade, as its isolation makes more widespread trade difficult. Because of this, the area, home to around 56,000 people, remains particularly poor.

When ActionAid first identified the need for a project, it began discussions with the people of Lascahobas to determine the most effective way it could help the community and support the local economy.

Most farmers in the Lascahobas area cannot afford to buy agricultural tools and materials, and loans commonly charge interest at 100 per cent, making repayment virtually impossible.

It quickly became clear that women in the area, vital to the economic vitality of the community and the mainstays of what agricultural production existed, were in particular need of assistance, but were hampered by their low social status and inability to afford tools or crops to grow.

ActionAid established a micro-credit scheme, targeting women, and enabling them to borrow capital on a six-month cycle at low interest. Micro-credit schemes – offering small loans with low rates of interest to those impoverished and the unemployed – successfully enable disadvantaged people to engage in self-employment, allowing them to generate an income.

During 2006, the organisation provided 100 women with loans, enabling them to purchase livestock, planting materials, seeds and tools. ActionAid works with women to arrange flexible repayment schemes and, when the loans are repaid, the money feeds into future loans for more women.

ActionAid has also incorporated a compulsory savings scheme into the micro-credit programme generating enough money to make the women self-sufficient.

Lascahobas resident Dieumen Cezaryen is a married mother of four. Her family's land has historically been very difficult to cultivate, and she has previously been unable to afford tools, fertiliser or even water to create any hope of a harvest. In 2003, her husband sold the family's livestock to pay for the cultivation of their land. Unfortunately, political instability in that year led to the area being virtually cut off and the Cezaryen family, like many others, watched helplessly as their crops rotted.

With ActionAid's help, Dieumen Cezaryen has been able to increase agricultural production on the family's land and earn surplus revenue from its sale. This not only allows her to buy more produce to grow, but also to pay for labour for the maintenance of the fields, releasing her children from the responsibility and providing them with time to study. Now Cezaryen is planning repairs on the family home which would previously have been financially impossible.

"My land is now more productive than ever. I have also purchased a goat, which I keep for reproduction. Soon, I hope to have several. I can now speak of broad improvement to the quality of my family's life, coupled with brighter prospects for the future of my children. Every day I thank God that I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in the ActionAid programme," she says.