Famine fears rise after hurricane wrecks Haiti's bread-basket

LES CAYES (Reuters) - Hurricane Matthew tore up large tracts of food crops as well as mature coffee and cocoa plantations when it ravaged Haiti’s fertile south last week, with a U.N. official expressing concern about possible famine in the poorest nation in the Americas.

Women do their laundry at the shores of a river after Hurricane Matthew hit Jeremie, Haiti. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The destruction of crops like rice, corn and beans in the area puts more than 100,000 children at risk of acute malnutrition, the United Nations said on Friday, in a Caribbean country where half the population already was underfed before the powerful hurricane hit.

While about half of Haiti’s food supply is imported, much of what it does produce is grown in the south.

As well as tearing up food staples and filling fields with sea water and trash, the storm uprooted plantations of cocoa, coffee and fruit trees, cash crops that are exported and that experts said will take at least five years to grow back.

“This is devastating, and it basically could mean that we have a famine in six months,” said Yvonne Helle, Haiti’s senior country director for the United Nations Development Programme.

Helle said preliminary figures indicated 60 to 80 percent of crops in the affected area had been lost to the storm.

“Not only has the harvest been lost, there also has been tremendous damage to fruit trees,” Helle added, mentioning the mango, one of Haiti’s primary exports.

Paul Joseph Maxel, a 75-year-old farmer based in the town of Saint-Jean-du-Sud, said he lost all but one of his 20 mango trees on a 15-acre (6-hectare) property he manages. He said coconut palms and avocado trees also were lost to the hurricane.

In front of a tent that his children, who live in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, bought and set up for him beside his hurricane-damaged house, Maxel said he hoped for aid in rebuilding the farm.

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“Our worries are about how to begin planting trees again,” he said.

The path to the farm, located on the side of a rolling hill and accessible only by foot, was littered with cracked coconuts and spoiled mangoes from uprooted trees.

On the other side of the hill, Auguste Donnay, a 30-year-old agronomy student, sat outside his family’s damaged house.

It was the only structure standing remotely intact on the property, although it was missing most of its roof. Fallen trees covered the land, and two other buildings were reduced to wooden frames.

Donnay called for government assistance to the area’s farmers, who he said do not have the resources to start again without help.

“If they must do it alone, many people will die ... of hunger,” Donnay said.

Although Port-au-Prince was largely spared the hurricane’s effects, Donnay said an agricultural crisis would reach beyond the south.

“They will be affected because it is the farmers here who feed the capital,” Donnay said.

Matthew killed at least 1,000 Haitians, according to a Reuters tally of numbers given by local mayors, and left more than 175,000 people homeless.

“Disaster can be avoided if we act really quickly, in terms of helping people clear their land and start planting again,” said Hervil Cherubin, Haiti country director for Heifer International, an agricultural aid group.

“People need access to seeds really quickly,” Cherubin said.

Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Will Dunham