Earthquake in Haiti: A fallen city, a fleeing population, a new crisis

Monday, February 8, 2010 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

PAPAYE, HAITI — The Rosier family was always close. Just not this close.

Twenty-five people – parents, grandparents, children, nephews, cousins and in-laws – have been living in the family patriarch’s farmhouse in Haiti’s Plateau Central for close to a month.

Standing outside, hacking his palm trees to pieces to build shacks for his growing household, patriarch Ilson Rosier smiles and shrugs.

“They’re family – of course I have to take them in. We’ll do what we can.”

But his seven children and their families now sharing cooking, washing and living space are starting to worry how they’ll make ends meet.

The Rosier brood is among the hundreds of thousands who have fled devastated Port-au-Prince to seek refuge in the provinces.

It’s a bizarre reversal of what has been the demographic norm in Haiti for decades: People leaving the underdeveloped, isolated provinces en masse in search of far richer opportunities in the capital.

But now more than half a million people have left for the countryside, dramatically boosting a formerly dwindling population that lacked the services to care for itself even before the influx. The demographic spike – a jump of as much as 20 per cent in some regions – places enormous pressure on already inadequate resources.

The exodus from the capital is creating an aftershock of its own as farming families starve – and jeopardize future harvests – trying to feed and house a slew of additional, hungry mouths.

Local aid groups say it’s an immediate humanitarian emergency, but one with huge potential for positive change: They hope the impetus of providing for the influx of people can do what decades of well-intentioned development projects haven’t – bring services to regions long neglected and create agricultural communities that can actually feed themselves.

The Plateau Central is like most of Haiti: An agricultural region that can’t feed itself. Thanks to decades of environmental degradation, and despite innumerable failed development projects, land here remains low yielding, its farmers poor.

And the earthquake is making a bad situation dire: In a good year, Haiti’s farmers can supply 30 per cent, perhaps 40 per cent, of the country’s rice and corn staples.

But this is not a good year.

Joseph Junior Lapaix, a member of the local Movement for the Peasants of Papaye, says this year, farmers will be lucky if they get half their normal yield.

Still reeling from hurricanes in 2008, farmers in the Plateau Central are dipping into their seed storages to feed the influx of people, jeopardizing the coming planting season and next year’s harvest. Cutting trees to build new living quarters is robbing farmers of precious resources and exacerbating already existing erosion.

The Movement for the Peasants of Papaye has launched an emergency aid drive for the more than 1,500 people that have arrived in the town of about 9,000 – many with no family and nowhere to stay.

Patrick and Stevenson Rosier had paying jobs, homes and families of their own in Port-au-Prince, where they moved from tiny Papaye years ago.

Stevenson worked as a college art professor, Patrick as a high-school teacher. When the Jan. 12 earthquake left them with no houses and no jobs, they brought their families home.

The 25-person household overflows the farm’s main concrete house, into small wooden buildings outside, long abandoned because they were structurally unsound.

“But now they’re inhabitable!” Patrick joked, showing off the room where he sleeps with his wife, Marie-Carme Rosier Delphin, and their infant son.

They’re not sure what’s next. They’d head back to Port-au-Prince if there was anything to return to. But it remains in ruins.

It will be years before the capital is fully functioning again.

In the meantime, the Rosiers are looking for work.

Patrick says he’s willing to do anything – try any field. But no one’s hiring and the entrepreneurial climate in Haiti’s poorest province is less than inspiring.

“We’re ‘researching,’ ” he said sheepishly. “But there’s no work. No demand. So we wait.”

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