Haitians face catastrophic hunger as country further descends into lawlessness

By The Telegraph (World News) | Created at 2024-06-11 12:35:37 | Updated at 2024-06-17 01:58:54 5 days ago
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Waves of hunger are flooding the streets of Haiti. “Sometimes I ask people for a bite when I see them eating. But they humiliate me,” said Heugenie.

The 70-year-old made her living selling vegetables on the side of the street, until her stall was destroyed by the lawless gangs that roam the capital Port-au-Prince.

Now, she has no choice but to beg for scraps, along with thousands of others who shelter displacement camps that have  been erected across the capital.

“I had my work before, but the gangs forced me out. Now I’m living in this situation that makes me cry… now I have nothing.”

Amid the security crisis, the poorest nation in the Americas is on the brink of famine as it battles the worst levels of food insecurity on record.

Nearly half the population – 5 million people – in Haiti are “acutely food insecure”, of which 1.6 million are classified as facing “emergency” food insecurity conditions, says the World Food Programme (WFP).

Jean-Martin Bauer, the Haiti country director for WFP, said that the crisis had reached boiling point.

“These are the highest numbers we’ve had since the 2010 earthquake,” he added. “This problem has snowballed over recent years, it’s been under the radar”.

Haiti’s rampant levels of food insecurity are among the highest in the world, with the incidence of hunger tripling since 2016. 

In its latest Hunger Hotspots report, published last week, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said there was urgent need for assistance to prevent starvation in 18 countries including Gaza, Sudan and Haiti.

People walk in front of a body which was left wrapped in plastic and tied, on a street near the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Pedestrians walk past a dead body, wrapped in plastic and dumped in the street – a daily reminder of the gang violence Credit: Orlando Barria/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Haiti is no stranger to instability and has suffered a litany of recent crises. Following the assassination of the President in 2021 and an earthquake five weeks later, civic order completely broke down with the country falling into gang law. 

Businesses, hospitals, schools, government buildings and police stations have all been ransacked. Safe access to the country’s main import terminals have also been severed, bringing the country’s supply chains to a halt.

Mr Bauer said that the capital city Port-au-Prince is now experiencing levels of malnutrition that are typically only experienced in war zones. The price of a food basket in the city is up 27 per cent since January, according to the WFP, with residents forced to skip meals.

“When you have violence at this scale, everything shuts down. If people are not able to work, they will not have any food to eat, it’s that simple,” said Bauer.

“I’ve always been used to seeing high rates of malnutrition in remote, isolated areas,” he added. “But here in Haiti, the highest rates of global acute malnutrition are in the capital and this was before any of this happened.”

World Food Program (WFP) staff member prepares food for refugees in Port-au-Prince
A worker from the World Food Program prepares meals for refugees in Port-au-Prince Credit: ORLANDO BARRIA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Haiti has been facing very high levels of hunger for years, with over 4 million people experiencing acute food insecurity since 2020, said Bauer.

Just two years ago, the United Nations warned that 20,000 people in one of Haiti’s biggest slums – the capital’s impoverished Cité Soleil – were facing famine, or “catastrophic” levels of hunger, meaning that residents could face death from starvation.

Margherita Fanchiotti, Director of Program Development, Quality and Impact at Save the Children International, said that if the current situation continues to deteriorate, “it may end up being far more widespread than it was at the end of 2022.”

The root of Haiti’s hunger crisis can be traced back to the 1980s, when the United States imposed sweeping economic reforms that stripped the country of its agricultural self-sufficiency, and fostered a near total reliance on US food imports, say experts.

Imports now make up 80 per cent of the rice that Haiti consumes, with consumer prices for major food products 30 to 77 per cent higher than in the surrounding Latin America and Caribbean region, according to the WFP.

World Food Program (WFP) staff member prepares food for refugees in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
World Food Program employees prepare meals for delivery to camps, where thousands of families await food Credit: ORLANDO BARRIA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Haiti’s existing poor agricultural performance has been further aggravated by gangs extending their web of control across agricultural areas in the north, particularly the Artibonite, known as the bread basket of Haiti.

The insurgents have attacked irrigation systems, stolen crops and demanded taxes for farmers to access fields,  displacing tens of thousands of people and causing a devastating impact on access to critical basic food supply.

Around 3,000 hectares of the Artibonite’s farmland was abandoned in 2023, according to WFP estimates.

“I met market women in [the Artibonite] who told me that they were being racketeered, kidnapped and sometimes even raped by members of the armed groups in that area,” said Mr Bauer.

“As a result, you’ve got towns in this part of Haiti where food is rotting because it can’t be taken to marketers…and then you’ll find hospitals with children suffering from acute malnutrition.” 

Port-au-Prince’s international airport reopened in mid-May after nearly three months of closure, creating optimism that aid could begin to flow more freely throughout the country.

“Right now, we’ve been able to use the containers that we placed in Port-au-Prince ahead of the crisis, but those have been running low,” said Mr Bauer. “Things are tentative.”

People wait to receive food from the World Food Program (WFP) on the Isidor Jean Louis College in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Haitians wait to receive food donations at the Isidor Jean Louis College, which has been turned into a community kitchen Credit: ORLANDO BARRIA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Over a two-week period in May, the WFP managed to distribute  615 metric tons of rice, beans, and vegetable oil to nearly 93,000 people in Cité Soleil. A small win in what often appears to be an overwhelming situation.

But Mr Bauer warned that there’s “still a high level of insecurity…it’s not as though the skies have cleared.”

Dr Reginald Fils-Aime, director of strategic planning at Zanmi Lasante, Haiti’s largest healthcare provider outside of the government, said that “the dysfunctionality of the breakdown of many state institutions” has made this “the worst situation that he has seen in [his] lifetime” in Haiti.

“The scale of the situation… and the inability of the law and order forces to respond has never lasted so long. This duration now is unique,” said Dr Fils-Aime.

Severe shortage of food isn’t the only emergency in the capital, with the gangs also  destroying much of Haiti’s health system, including warehouses and pharmacies.

A man on crutches exits La Paix University Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Hospital are currently facing pressure due to the closure of other health services Credit: Orlando Barria/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The shortages have impacted the hospitals, where around 40 per cent of medical staff have been forced to leave the country due to the extreme levels of insecurity and violence.

Jean-Baptiste Marion, Head of Mission at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Haiti, said hospitals are lacking critical medical equipment, including trauma kits.

Mr Marion said his team in the capital may soon have to close their operating theatre. “We’re working on a week to week basis,” he told The Telegraph.

He said that a priority should be to put more emphasis on restoring basic public services across the capital, such as drinking water, sanitation and garbage collection.

“Only addressing the security issue will not be successful if they don’t also address the infrastructure,” said Marion. “The complete water distribution system of a city  of 3.5 million people [metropolitan Port-au-Prince] is not working.”

Ms Fanchiotti said that creating “humanitarian corridors” for aid remained a priority.

“To make sure that we can provide not only medicine, medical equipment, but also to transport staff and patients,” she said. “Because the roads aren’t safe, it means that people suffering with chronic diseases can’t reach the hospitals.”

Garbage on street in the Bel Air neighborhood, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Deteriorating security has all but stopped public services, like waste collection Credit: Orlando Barria/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

It is not just the capital where life is perilous.

The rural south of the country has effectively been cut off by armed gangs which run kidnap and extortion rackets.

“The south is isolated from Port au Prince,” said Mr Bauer. He added The issue has been compounded by the waves of displaced families that have fled to the rural south.

More than 100,000 were forced to flee their homes in Port-au-Prince in the month of March alone, according to UN migration agency IOM.

“This is a concern for us because the South is already an area with elevated levels of food insecurity,” said Mr Bauer.

Nadesha Mijoba, Country Director at Haitian Health Foundation (HHF) – based in Jeremie, the capital of the Grand-Anse department and one of the poorest areas in the country said that the people in the rural villages across the south have “lost hope and faith in their political leaders”. 

She said humanitarian corridors were desperately needed to allow the flow of aid directly to the south.

“This is what conflict does to a country,” said Mr Bauer. “Hunger is an outcome of the problems Haiti is facing, but it’s also the cause of it.”

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