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Haiti at risk of famine as farmers kidnapped, 'extremely bad' hunger fuels tumult

OTTAWA — Even as Canadian aid feeds thousands, the United Nations is warning that Haiti's political chaos is putting the country at risk of famine, as farmers get kidnapped and the desperate turn to vigilante justice against gangsters.

OTTAWA — Even as Canadian aid feeds thousands, the United Nations is warning that Haiti's political chaos is putting the country at risk of famine, as farmers get kidnapped and the desperate turn to vigilante justice against gangsters.

"This is not the usual chronic food crisis in Haiti. This is extremely bad," said Jean-Martin Bauer, the World Food Programme's country director for the Caribbean state.

"It's very difficult to organize a peaceful election with a starving population."

In an assessment last October, some 20,000 people in Haiti were classified as being in catastrophic food insecurity, which Bauer says is the first time that people in the Americas have been characterized as being at risk of famine.

Bauer said the hardest-hit demographic live in Cité Soleil, a gang-controlled area of the capital, Port-au-Prince, where residents face conditions more often found in parts of Somalia and Afghanistan.

Some five million people — half the country's population — are now at the "crisis" stage of food insecurity, the third level of five within the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. They face above-average levels of malnutrition. 

Those who are at "catastrophic" risk are at level five. As soon as 20 per cent of a population reaches that stage, it is considered to be suffering famine. 

Bauer said the hunger is fuelling gangs — and is being exacerbated by the armed groups. Haiti entered a political crisis in mid-2021 with the assassination of its president, and has since been ruled by de facto President Ariel Henry, under whose leadership gangs have filled a power vacuum.

Henry has called for a foreign military to intervene and clear out the gangs, an idea Washington supports but that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has warned may backfire. This month, a House of Commons committee advised against sending Canadian troops.

Ottawa's approach has been to provide intelligence support to police and sanction elites alleged to be empowering gangs, in the hope of bringing about a political consensus among Haitians on how the international community should help.

The UN says gangs now control 80 per cent of Port-au-Prince, though local groups have even higher estimates. The gangs often seize food or tax it, whether it's coming into the capital from rural areas or from abroad through ports.

Bauer said climate change and rising fuel prices in Haiti have worsened a hunger crisis that stems from decades-long problems.

The number of Haitians with acute food needs has tripled since when Hurricane Matthew hit the island in 2016, amid a series of droughts and problems importing food.

"These things are just compounded and have gotten to be extremely serious," Bauer said.

"What's concerning for me is that the problems that have provoked this food crisis are getting worse."

Haiti imports half of its food, which is why gang blockades cause so much chaos. Haitians use rice as a staple, but the country imports 80 per cent of that crop, thanks to disastrous market-liberalization measures undertaken in 1994 under American pressure, for which U.S. President Bill Clinton has since apologized.

"Small farmers got crushed. They're not able to compete on the open market. And therefore you've got (urban) migration and increased vulnerability in rural areas," Bauer said.

The rate of food price inflation in Haiti has hit 50 per cent, and the World Bank says it that getting worse quickly.

And the National Human Rights Defense Network says a growing vigilante-justice movement dubbed "Bwa Kale" has had mobs of citizens lynch presumed gang members or burn them to death.

In recent months, gangs have started taking over parts of Haiti's breadbasket, the Artibonite valley, where Bauer said farmers are being kidnapped for ransom. Gangsters extort farmers for access to irrigation systems, or chase them away in order to rent out productive farmland.

"This expansion of armed groups into rural areas is a factor that has me quite worried, as a humanitarian worker," said Bauer.

But he stressed that the UN has helped turn the tide, with the help of Canadians.

The World Food Programme has run a school meal program in which the organization buys crops from farmers then has a team make healthy lunches for children. This employs locals and gives kids the nutrients they need to learn.

"It's a win-win," Bauer said.

The number of kids getting a daily meal through that program has jumped from 93,000 last fall to 183,000 by mid-April, thanks in large part to donations from Canadians and the federal government.

In the western city of Jérémie, the program provided children with some 400 tonnes of food last year, including plantain, cabbage and beans. The same amount of food has been delivered in just the first three months of this year, and it's helping turn the tide in one of the worst areas for food insecurity.

"This goes to show that if we give farmers have a chance, they will respond to the supply stimulus we provide," he said.

Bauer's organization has also launched a micro-insurance project that protects $5 million in assets owned by small-scale farmers, to prevent them from throwing in the towel and becoming part of the urban poor. It also distributes cash to people so they can choose foods they like while supporting the local economy

Last month, the UN issued a humanitarian response plan for Haiti, with 60 per cent of the requested funds intended to help with food and agriculture.

Bauer said that reflects the reality that growing hunger makes it harder to fight off other ills, from stemming a cholera outbreak to stopping gang recruitment of young people.

"I want people to push back against the apathy, the sense of fatigue. This is a country with enormous potential, and Haitians need to need a hand now from us," he said.

"Food security happens to be one of the building blocks of human security. And we need to get that right in order to help Haiti get out of its current predicament."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press