Haiti’s gendered internal food economy in the COVID-19 era

Jennifer Vansteenkiste and Widley Presendieu

As COVID-19 spreads across Haiti and the Dominican Republic the shared border has closed, heightening concerns over food procurement among the Haitian population. The pandemic highlights the country’s fragile food system and the necessity to invest in local peasant agriculture to meet local food needs.

Nearly 60% of the population practices agriculture making it the largest employment sector. Despite the high participation, the local system remains reliant on food imports for 50-60% of the Haitian diet, due to minimal investment in women’s local food production, and highly competitive imported foodstuffs. Government and international investment remains mainly concentrated on men’s export food production. However, women are responsible for most of the local food production and distribution that feeds the local population through informal urban markets. These women are often heads of households with several children to feed with market sales as their only source of income.

On March 19, in response to COVID-19, the central Government of Haiti declared a state of emergency ordering schools, factories, and religious institutions closed, introduced an 8 pm to 5 am curfew, banned gatherings over 10 persons, closed the land border with the Dominican Republic and restricted air travel. COVID-19 testing is limited and there is a real and immediate need to strengthen the health care system, which has an estimated 124 ICU beds and 64 ventilators for 11 million people The national government has asked seven factories to manufacture masks, but production is limited to supplying only the police force, leaving the government to buy additional masks on the global market. Further, the government has asked the population to practice social distancing but with the culture of close body contact and a lack of trust in the government there is little adjustment in behaviour.

Closing of the border with the Dominican Republic has halted much of the imported food entering Haiti, leaving markets diminished and reliant on mostly American rice and dry products entering through the ports. The diminished food shed enriches large importers and the depots that distribute dry goods at exorbitant prices. A 25lb sack of rice has increased from 1500 gourdes to 2050 gourdes. As a result, traders wade through rivers or cross by land illegally to buy Dominican food, and if caught they are met with beatings and arrests by the Dominican police.

The North Department administration has limited public markets in urban Cap-Haitien to three days a week – Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday 6am to 2pm. The central market is sanitized between days and some hand washing stations are present. The reduced scheduling of market days increases the size of crowds and intensifies the chance of virus transmission. Further, travel restrictions could prove disastrous leaving timarchans unable to earn an income to support their families, and consumers with diminished access to food. The alternative is equally dire as busy markets are an ideal location for sharing COVID-19. The current pandemic reduces women’s choices – risk exposure to COVID-19 or stay home and face starvation.

Pre-virus, 4.1 million people, or 40% of the population, were projected to be in urgent need of food assistance in 2020. A dismal lack of investment in local agriculture and local food value chains, deteriorating economic conditions, and intensifying climate change led to the doubling of food-insecure people in Haiti between 2018 and 2019. In 2017, an estimated 65% of household income was spent on food, and since that time the value of the Haitian gourde has depreciated. In 2017 USD1 was worth 61 gourdes. Today it is worth 97 gourdes making food imports unaffordable. As the Haitian diaspora experience their own unemployment due to COVID-19, the approximate $2 billion in annual remittances will certainly decline.

In the two years prior to COVID-19, the exorbitant cost of living and government corruption motivated a new surge of deadly nation-wide riots and brutal kidnappings. If these conditions continue, Haiti is potentially headed for a deadly intensification of social disorder. Taken together, these disruptions will leave humanitarian food aid and health interventions unable to fully deal with the looming crisis.

A short-term response to COVID-19 includes a coordinated effort to stabilize food prices, the encouragement to trade from home fronts and local boutiques, discouragement of travel, the provision of public hand washing stations, and an education campaign on social distancing, sanitization, and the need for masks. The long-term response should include the division of the large central markets into permanent smaller markets with commitments to provide infrastructure including washrooms, hand sanitization stations, secure storage lockers and sun covers for timarchans. This would prevent migration back to the central markets to reclaim prime selling spots. Each smaller market should be strategically located in neighbourhoods to eliminate the need for travel, and then linked to local food production from the rural and peri-urban areas. In this scenario, is a need to reinvest in local women’s agroecological food production and transportation linkages between rural production and city markets.

Assisting Haitian peasants to reinvigorate an agroecological system built from the Haitian perspective and cosmology will help reverse the destructive agri-business framework that has brought us the COVID-19 and other viruses. Haitian peasant agriculture, like other indigenous civilisations, is capable of rebalancing economic power and the human-environment relationship, and of reforming food system governance to protect the most vulnerable. Government and non-governmental organizations must play a role in the reshaping of Haiti’s internal food market.

It is clear that it is neither morally acceptable nor scientifically sound to ignore the need to improve women’s local food production and distribution. Indeed that is the only way to ensure a healthy internal food economy that generates income and maintains a fresh, nutritious and safe food supply in a non-destructive manner.

Article by: Jennifer Vansteenkiste (University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs), Widley Presendieu (Cap-Haitien, Haiti)

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