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In Haiti, Political Unrest Fuels Growing Hunger Crisis


The arm measurement of a child is marked red, meaning severe malnourishment, at St. Luke Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (January 29, 2020).
In Haiti, Political Unrest Fuels Growing Hunger Crisis
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Celavi Belor has lost so much weight over the past year his clothes are too large for his body.

The 41-year-old farm laborer looked up from working in a rocky field in the mountains of northwestern Haiti. Sometimes I go two or three days without eating,” he said.

The only food Belor, his wife and five children had to eat the day before was ground corn. Now they only have a pepper and some old beans.

“My biggest worry is one day I just won’t be able to get up anymore,” he said.

Farmhand Celavi Belor, 41, a father of five children, pauses from work in Jean-Rabel, Haiti January 31, 2020. (January 31, 2020)
Farmhand Celavi Belor, 41, a father of five children, pauses from work in Jean-Rabel, Haiti January 31, 2020. (January 31, 2020)

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It has long had one of the world’s highest levels of food insecurity. For the past few years, a lack of rainfall has damaged harvests, causing food shortages and raising prices.

The northwest, one of the Caribbean nation’s poorest areas, has suffered the most.

Imported food is too costly

Over half of the food Haitians eat comes from other countries. The gourde, the money of Haiti, has lost much of its value. That means that imported food is too costly for many people like Belor. He earns just 40 cents a day when he can find the work.

Last autumn, the situation got worse. Anti-government protesters blocked roads and closed businesses and public services for three months. Food aid could not reach those in need. Many people could not find work. The value of the gourde dropped even more.

Haitians call this standstill the “peyi lock,” in the Creole language. It has led to a new hunger crisis.

Food is served in a program for undernourished children at St. Luke Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 29, 2020.
Food is served in a program for undernourished children at St. Luke Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 29, 2020.

Third of Haitians need food

One in three Haitians, about 3.7 million people, urgently need food aid, the United Nations said in December.

If immediate action is not taken, by next month 1.2 million people will only be able to eat one meal every other day in the Caribbean nation, U.N. officials warned.

Frena Remorin lives down the road from Belor in the community of Dessources. She said, “No one has eaten yet today but if I feed my kids too early in the day, they are hungry by night and cannot sleep. I don’t have enough money now for two meals a day.”

Political instability

Since a powerful earthquake in 2010, Haitians have lived with an ever-changing political situation and bad governance.

With no official government or budget, Haiti cannot take money from international organizations to help end the food crisis. Foreign aid to Haiti’s government went down by half in 2019.

President Jovenel Moise is working with international organizations to create an agreement to share power with other Haitian politicians. Protestors question his 2016 election and want him to resign from the office. Parliament suspended meetings in January.

Self-sufficient

The country was not always like this. Haiti grew most of its own food until the 1980s. Then the United States asked Haiti to import more crops. The U.S. crops cost less than the ones Haitian farmers grew, so they could no longer make a living by farming. Few people invested in agriculture.

Add to this the effects of climate change. Haiti is one of the nations in most danger from powerful hurricanes that are becoming more common. That is because it has little infrastructure and cannot recover easily.

Cédric Piriou is Haiti Country Director for the aid group Action Against Hunger. He says the real effects of the crisis will show in six months or so as malnutrition begins to harm more people.

Death rates among babies already appear to be rising. Margareth Narcisse is a doctor and an official with Saint Damien’s Pediatric Hospital in Port-au-Prince, the capital city. She said that in the past few months twice as many children were dying from malnutrition as before.

Dorvil Chiloveson, 3, swollen with edema, is watched over by his mother Linda Julien, 20, in the malnutrition ward at St. Damien Pediatric Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti January 29, 2020.
Dorvil Chiloveson, 3, swollen with edema, is watched over by his mother Linda Julien, 20, in the malnutrition ward at St. Damien Pediatric Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti January 29, 2020.

Helicopter aid

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) is working with other international organizations to help Haiti’s most needy. They have increased their operations by supplying more food and money. Because of violence on the roads, the WFP has also arranged for a helicopter to move its employees, other humanitarian workers and some supplies.

U.N. officials estimated in November it needed about $72 million to pay for this emergency operation to 700,000 Haitians for eight months.

On Wednesday the WFP said it had raised only $19 million of the money it needed.

One Haiti-based European diplomat asked, “Why should we bail the authorities out if they helped create this crisis?” adding that politicians were not being blamed for the problems. “How do we change that so that they don’t hurt people when they are going hungry?” Humanitarian workers — and Haitians — beg the world not to ignore the immediate suffering.

Back in Dessources, Belor says his children have little energy.

In the past, at least they could eat produce growing on fruit trees if they did not have money to buy food. But thanks to the dry weather, these trees are no longer producing.

Belor no longer even attends religious services because he cannot pay for the clothes he feels he needs to attend.

“I live without hope,” he said.

I’m Jill Robbins.

And I'm Jonathan Evans.

Sarah Marsh and Andre Paultre reported on this story for Reuters. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

hemisphere – n. half of the Earth

standstill n. a situation in which there is little or no activity

kid – n. a child

hurricane – n. a storm with powerful winds

infrastructure – n. the buildings, roads and power supplies needed to operate an area

malnutrition – n. the unhealthy condition that results from not eating enough food or not eating enough healthy food

arrange – v. to organize

bail outv. the act of saving or rescuing something (such as a business) from money problems

begv. to ask someone for something such as food or money

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