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UMCOR Aids Farmers Hit by Haiti’s Earthquake

by Linda Bloom*

October 26, 2010—To increase food production in the earthquake-impacted areas of Haiti, United Methodists are supporting a project that will encourage farmers in the practice of “passing on the gift.”

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is teaming up with the Methodist Church of Haiti to implement the cooperative effort, similar to the model used by Heifer International. In October, UMCOR directors approved funding of $292,500 for the six-month project as part of the denomination’s earthquake relief and recovery work.

“Sixty percent of Haitians still earn their income through farming,” said the Rev. James Gulley, who is visiting Haiti through Nov. 5 in his role as an UMCOR adviser on agriculture and community development. He is working on the project, which should begin by November, with the Rev. Marco Depestre, an agronomist and secretary of the Methodist Church of Haiti.

The region of Haiti known as the West Department was the area most severely impacted by the earthquake. Afterward, more than 660,000 people migrated to other parts of the country in search of food and shelter, according to estimates by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Early concerns that farmers would be forced to sell their seeds did not become as big a problem as anticipated, Gulley said. Another fear was that if large amounts of food aid continued to flow into Haiti, it would “discourage farmers from actually farming in the growing season.”

In early October, Gulley attended a Washington briefing by OXFAM on the agency’s new policy paper, “Planting Now: Agricultural Challenges and Opportunities for Haiti’s Reconstruction.” He learned that farmers in Haiti had produced “a bumper crop” that left a good supply of food in storage. The surplus provided another incentive to reduce food aid, he pointed out, “so farmers would continue to go back to farming.”

Agriculture is an important part of Haiti’s reconstruction and redevelopment. “An earthquake, unlike a hurricane, does not totally destroy your productive capacity,” he explained.

Leader in Agricultural Development

The Methodist Church in Haiti has been a leader in agricultural development, at one point operating three agricultural training centers to prepare people to become agriculture extension agents. “In more recent years, some of those programs had declined,” Gulley said.

Depestre confirmed that most of the church’s regional offices for the “Projet de Réhabiltation Rurale” were either closed “or had to significantly reduce their level of activity.”

The new emergency agricultural assistance program, he said, will allow the church “to reach out to farmers, members of the peasantry -- among the poorer people in Haiti -- and help them boost their production, as many were decapitalized by the earthquake.”

The short-term strategy is building stewardship and community in regions directly impacted by the earthquake. An agricultural specialist and six technicians “will be directly engaged in overseeing this particular project and implementing it,” Gulley said.

Thirty extension agents, hired on a temporary basis, will support the program and make direct contact with the farmers. Working in community, the farmers will receive the gift of an animal and then be required to share the offspring of the animals, along with skills and resources, with other farmers. As farmers pass on their gifts, it helps build community and sustainability, Gulley pointed out.

An assessment of the project will help the Methodist Church of Haiti design a broader agricultural program that could include training schools focused on potential employment markets and improved technologies, he said.

The program also will indicate to people in the earthquake regions “that the Methodist Church is still interested in their plight and (wants) to accompany them so that their level of life may improve,” Depestre added.

Please give to Haiti Emergency, UMCOR Advance #418325. Online Giving

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.