Following last week’s lethal earthquake, Haiti is still counting its bodies. We’ll never know precisely how many people perished, but we’ll have the grisly estimates. An early guess from the Red Cross put the death toll at about 50,000. A Haitian official has suggested it’s more like 200,000.
This new catastrophe comes on the heels of another. Whereas the tremors of January 12 struck with unpredictable and sudden ferocity, Haiti’s other misfortune–a slow-motion food crisis–has afflicted the small Caribbean nation for years.
In 2008, hungry Haitians erupted into violence as riots rocked Port-au-Prince. The rising cost of rice, beans, cooking oil, and other staples compelled protestors to take to the streets. Several people died, including a peacekeeping soldier from Nigeria. The anarchy led to the upheaval of Haiti’s prime minister.
President Obama’s pledge to send $100 million to Haiti apparently comes on top of the aid that the United States already ships there: nearly $64 million in 2009. The current package will include 14,550 tons of rice, corn soy blend, and vegetable oil. This down payment is enough to feed 1.2 million people for two weeks.
Private charities are jumping into action as well. I’ve witnessed some of this generosity up close. My son-in-law has a personal connection to Haiti. Before the earthquake hit, he was scheduled to fly there with his church group. They support an orphanage called God’s Littlest Angels, north of Port-au-Prince.
The good news is that the orphanage survived the recent havoc with only minor damage. Yet the future is uncertain. The availability of food and water may dwindle, even as assistance pours in from around the globe. Transportation networks are devastated.
Americans have an obligation to respond to the current emergency by supplying life’s essentials to needy Haitians. Over time, we must do more than offer handouts. As Haitians struggle back to their feet, we have to make sure that their impoverished country obtains the means to become something other than the poorest nation in the western hemisphere–one that’s so desperate that its people riot for food.
Farmers and ranchers in the United States and around the world must keep on doing what we do: produce such an abundance of food that we can export large quantities abroad both to foreign customers who can afford it and to troubled Haitians who need it simply to survive.
In the long run, we must share our expertise with Haitian farmers. According to the United Nations, about half of all Haitians live in rural areas. The overwhelming majority of these people are engaged in some form of agriculture. They account for about one quarter of Haiti’s economic output.
The growing season begins in March. Haitian farmers will encounter stresses like they’ve never seen before, especially if the urban homeless migrate to the countryside. We must make sure that they can grow as much food as possible this year and beyond.
Truth About Trade and Technology promises to do its part. We will invite a Haitian farmer to participate in the 2010 Global Farmer Roundtable, an annual event in Des Moines that connects farmers from around the world to discuss challenges and share knowledge.
When a hurricane struck the Philippines last year, an Australian farmer organized an effort to provide assistance, working with a Filipino farmer whom he had met at our event. Forging bonds such as this will help the world prepare for the next natural disaster, no matter where it takes place.
It will also help us fight man-made disasters, especially if these farmer-to-farmer connections lead to the spread of agricultural technology into the developing world. Haitian farmers should have access to the very best tools available, including drought and salt-tolerant seeds.
Right now, we can give the Haitians no greater gift than the food they need to survive for the next few weeks. Going forward, we must help them gain the capacity to feed themselves.
Carol Keiser owns and manages cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Western Illinois. Mrs. Keiser is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member. (www.truthabouttrade.org)