The church’s roof peeled off an hour before dawn, killing three of the villagers sheltering under it and forcing the rest into a flooded field where they sat hand-in-hand waiting for the hurricane to pass. The next morning, they took stock. Most people had lost their homes, livestock and all their crops.
Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall on the southwestern tip of Haiti on 4 October last year, was the strongest storm to hit the country in 52 years. It killed some 1,332 people, according to local officials, and, in the immediate aftermath, left 800,000 more without food.
Five months later, the UN estimates that 280,000 people are “highly food insecure”, and hard-hit coastal villages like Côteaux still resemble bomb craters full of washed-up garbage, rubble and felled coconut trees.
"Our politicians have failed," says 51-year-old farmer Serdé Ranodio, after a service held at a small cement-block house, built behind the ruins of the village church.
Although Ranodio's family now sleeps on the bare ground of a hastily erected tin shack, his daughters attended the service in polished patent leather shoes and with red bows in their hair. Ranodio helped clear the main road in the days after the hurricane to allow aid to come in, but other than some chaotic food and tarp distributions, not much help arrived.
“Our leaders even had the audacity to take credit for efforts done by aid agencies and directed towards their friends," says the farmer. He suspects the same happened to a large portion of the thousands of metric tonnes of seeds distributed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
None of the seed reached him or his neighbours. The hurricane destroyed his winter crop of millet, manioc and pigeon peas as well as the cows, pigs and sheep that represented his life savings. Unable to afford to buy enough seeds, he’s expecting a poor spring harvest that he fears won’t feed his family for long.
Ranodio shows us the debris of his former brick house and the grave of his 85-year-old cousin, a herbal doctor who was among those killed when the church collapsed.
A nearby tombstone is plastered with faded election posters for Haiti’s new president: Jovenel Moïse. The right-wing businessman won a first round of elections a year before the hurricane but wasn’t inaugurated until 7 February following several postponements, and a second round of elections. A year of political paralysis under an interim president has not helped reconstruction efforts.
"Hopefully, life gets better now that we have a president," says Marie Saint Sima.
The mother of two has brought her family to Haiti’s annual carnival festivities in the regional capital of Les Cayes to raise everyone’s spirits after some difficult months. The family’s home survived the hurricane with only minor damage to the roof, but the children’s school was closed for several months and food prices rose steeply – by an average of 43 percent according to the UN’s World Food Programme.
For days after the storm, people navigated the flooded boulevards of Les Cayes in canoes. Now, those same streets are a human sea of folk dancers, costumed children and colourful parades. Moïse’s first decision as president was to move last weekend’s national carnival to Les Cayes to bring much-needed revenue to the hard-hit region.
But expectations for the politically inexperienced president are low. Only one in five Haitians voted in the second round of polls, and years of coups and rampant kleptocracy have contributed to a deep-rooted political apathy amongst much of the population.
Like many presidents before him, Moïse wants to boost the economy and make Haitians less dependent on food aid by investing in tourism and commercial agriculture.
A vulnerable land
Two thirds of Haiti’s jobs come from agricultural production, but most are in subsistence farming, while the food industry’s potential has never been fulfilled.
Hurricane Matthew destroyed 90 percent of crops in the departments of Sud and Grand’Anse, which are vital for domestic food production. But even before this latest of many violent storms, agriculture was inefficient due to a lack of investment, poor infrastructure and Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters.
Since the 1990s, Haiti has imported more food than it has produced. Moïse hopes to rebuild agricultural capacity by creating new free trade zones for exports that would be modelled after the Trou-du-Nord area in northern Haiti where he ran the state-financed banana farm that earned him his nickname “The Banana Man”.
Since his inauguration a month ago, the president has visited tomato plantations in the Cul-de-Sac plain, grape fields in Chardonnières, and vetiver grass farms and distilleries in Torbeck, but he is yet to produce a detailed implementation plan for his agricultural ambitions.
Mousson Pierre, the director of a Haitian NGO called ORE (Organisation for the Rehabilitation of the Environment), says the government needs a long-term plan to tackle Haiti’s chronic food insecurity.
"It’s true that many people lost everything in the hurricane,” she tells IRIN at the NGO’s fruit plantation and headquarters in Camp Perrin. “Of course they need food aid and new seeds. But we are now months into the response and still very little has been done to tackle the bigger threat facing these communities, which is the combination of regular droughts and hurricanes caused by climate change.”
According to an annual Climate Change Vulnerability Index released by global risk advisory firm Maplecroft, Haiti falls into the “extreme risk” category for climate change impacts and is ranked the seventh most vulnerable country in the world. This is the fourth year in a row that many regions of the country have been hit by drought.
Deforestation also remains a serious problem. For years, ORE has been running a tree-planting project aimed at reducing soil erosion and improving soil quality, but the hurricane felled most of those trees and Pierre says funding for such efforts is increasingly limited.
The government has said it wants to implement reforestation projects and other longer-term policies such as providing support to commercial farmers, but it lacks the resources to go it alone. The lack of state resources to revitalise the ailing agriculture sector has been blamed in part on widespread state corruption.
“Fighting corruption is a must for Haiti to feed itself. The whole political system is rotten,” argues Gregory Brandt, a prominent businessman and president of the Franco-Haitian Chamber of Commerce who spoke to IRIN from his Port-au-Prince office. He cites the lack of border controls that allow large quantities of food to be smuggled in from the Dominican Republic.
Haiti has more than 30 border crossings with the Dominican Republic, but only four of them are manned. Brandt has lobbied for more border controls but has time and again been blocked by powerful Senate members who, he says, profit personally from the smuggling.
For food that enters the country legally, the import tariff has remained at three percent for almost two decades, the lowest in the Caribbean. In 2013, higher tariffs were introduced for some products, but by then many Haitian farmers had already gone out of business.
The arrival of 90,000 metric tonnes of American food aid after the earthquake also hurt local farmers. Peter Voegtli, Head of Operations for the World Food Programme in Haiti, says lessons have been learnt from past mistakes and the WFP now buys 66 percent of the food it distributes in Haiti from local producers, versus only three percent after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
In Côteaux, Serdé Ranodio and a group of church members have started organising politically with the hope of putting forward a local candidate for parliamentary elections in 2019.
“If – for the first time ever – we were to be represented by someone we all trust, that might help,” he says. “Ultimately, only God can save us. But we have to do all we can ourselves too.”
(TOP PHOTO: Five months after Hurricane Matthew, Coteaux's beach is still littered with rotting palm trees and debris. Helena Carpio/IRIN)