The food aid that poured into Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010 fed thousands of Haitians who lost their homes and income. But the flood of food and seed donations eventually made it hard for recuperating farmers to compete and protect their remaining seed stock. Farming cooperatives provide a resilient opportunity for small farmers to succeed financially and access previously unattainable technology, education, and innovation.
In January 2010, news coverage showed vast devastation to Haiti’s capital of Port-Au-Prince. The news rarely showed the destruction of rural areas, where 60 percent of the population lives – including 600,000 Haitians who returned to the countryside after the earthquake. With the national death toll at 220,000, nearly 100,000 rural Haitians experienced widespread damage to their homes, irrigation systems, seed stock, crops, livestock, tools, and storage facilities. While US$173 million worth of food aid provided necessary and immediate assistance, the surge of foreign aid forced local food prices to drop, sinking small farmers further into poverty.
Before the earthquake, Haitian farmers battled with some of the world’s highest rates of soil erosion and deforestation. According to the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti, less than two percent of the country’s forest cover remains, leaving land vulnerable to storms such as the recently destructive Hurricane Sandy. The erosion caused by lack of tree cover accounts for 37,000 acres (150 sq kilometers) of land lost annually. Additional trees harvested or lost each year cause 36 million tons (over 32 million metric tonnes) of soil to erode from Haiti’s hilly countryside.
In the face of these environmental challenges, Haitian farmers received very little support from the government. The President and Co-founder of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, Hugh Locke, writes that small Haitian farmers generally cannot access “scientific research of new techniques to improve agricultural practices” and have limited “access to credit and no support system.”
Farming cooperatives have the potential to give small farmers that support system they lack. By pooling resources, cooperative members spread risk and gain the buying power to purchase and share items like expensive but labor-saving tractors. Through the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, farming cooperative members have increased yields by 40 to 50 percent. After the tropical storms in 2012, the cooperative bought wholesale seed and one ton of rice, offering these essentials to members at significantly subsidized prices.
The Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP), the country’s largest peasant organization with over 60,000 members, unifies small farmers and rural peasants into farm or craft cooperatives, trains community leaders and conducts agroecological studies. According to a post by their international ally, Grassroots International, the MPP has recaptured 10,000 acres (40.5 sq kilometers) of arable land, planted over 20 million trees and created innovative barriers to mudslides such as stonewall terracing.
Small farmer cooperatives are making strides around the world as a viable solution to food insecurity and rural poverty. In their report Cooperatives: Key to Feeding the World, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines cooperatives as social enterprises that put “people before profit” and “promote peace and democracy.” By working together to share resources, Haitian farmers can also share in the productive, progressive and environmentally sustainable success of cooperatives, even in the face of such challenges as government neglect, natural disasters, and inaccessible foreign markets.