Haiti; Little to live on but hope; Peasants try to stretch $2 a week to feed eight

The village of Coridon is a gray ribbon of mud houses perched on a spit of sand along Haiti's northwest coast.

From the air, it looks as if the soil around Coridon has been scratched away. People here try to eke out a living by fishing, farming tiny arid plots, and selling charcoal and salt.

But in international aid circles, this region of Haiti is often called ''hopeless.'' The land is badly eroded. The trees are disappearing, stripped bare by peasants seeking fuel.

This is also the area from which an estimated 15,000 Haitians fled in boats for Miami and other northern points before the United States began patrolling the Haitian coast earlier this year, effectively cutting off that line of escape.

But if many Haitians have left, more remain. Hopeless or not, this is the part of Haiti they belong to. Here in Coridon, the people are resigned. There is no more talk of voyages clandestins these days. But there are some shiny new tin roofs, a sign of money sent back by relatives who made it good in the US.

The roofs are the only sign of economic improvement in this community. The northwest of Haiti is hopeless, in the aid fraternity's view, because no one seems able to think of ways of investing money in communities whose economies are so fragile as to be all but invisible.

This situation is not unusual in countries like Haiti. It is just too expensive and too difficult to reach the very poor, say many development specialists. So the people of Coridon, and others like them, are untouched by the $150 million aid from overseas that flows annually into Haiti.

How do the people of Coridon survive? They have three kinds of capital: the few dilapidated sailing boats in their fishing fleet; their small plots of family land away from the town among badly eroded hills, on which they try to grow plaintain, onions, tomatoes, and fruit; and their salt mines.

Unfortunately the fishing seems to be declining.

''Even if I go to sea,'' says Edouard Soifaite, father of four children (another child died in a drought), ''I will not find anything. Even the fish have let us down.''

As for the land, explains Aramus Charles, secretary of Coridon's Council, the soil is basically good. But the area has become drier and more eroded, so it is impossible to grow food without irrigation. Meanwhile, because the trees and bushes are vanishing, an interdict has been imposed on the keeping of goats and livestock.

So people go to market, even if they earn next to nothing. They take to market commodities that will survive the hot, jarring, all-day journey into Port-au-Prince. One such commodity is charcoal. But this trade is declining because the trees are disappearing. The other salable commodity here is salt. Most of the families in Coridon have inherited salt mines that have been in their fmailies for generations. But the price of salt has fallen dramatically.

Istaline Joseph, a young woman, sells salt - but it is hardly profitable. She lives in a mud-wall house with a thatch roof. The house has two tiny rooms. Eight people live there - her four children, a brother, her parents, and herself.

The balance sheet of Istaline Joseph's budget is hard to interpret. She has not mined salt since her husband left her, so she buys it. She pays $5 a bag. When she takes three or four bags into town she pays $2 for transport, 50 cents for handling, and 75 cents for a bus ticket. She sells a bag for $7. Then she buys a ticket back.

According to her own calculations, one journey into town yields a $2 profit - for eight people.

''When I have maize,'' she says, meaning powdered maize given out by the village nutritionist, ''I feed it to the children. When I have no maize, I give them a piece of bread, if my father brings one.'' She admits there are times she has nothing to give.

When the nutritionist, Jacques Benjamin, came to Coridon four years ago, there were many children who suffered from serious malnutrition. She been able to reduce the degree of malnutrition, but not end it.

Every two weeks she holds a meeting, and 25 mothers attend with 80 children. The children are weighed, and Mrs. Benjamin gives out meal and powdered milk. She demonstrates how to cook vegetables, meat, and eggs. Her lessons are taken to heart. Istaline Joseph, for one, can recite the recipes. But an egg costs 50 cents; few can afford one. Since the ban on goats and cows, no one has milk, let alone meat.

There is one hope for Coridon, say some residents - water. It is needed for drinking, cooking, and farming. The people of Coridon trek seven miles into the hills for water.

Four years ago the villagers somehow managed to raise $2,000 for a water system. They gave the money to an engineer to carry out a ''study.'' The study, they say now, has got them nowhere. The engineer took the $2,000 and left.

They are still hoping for water - and are willing to dig a ditch for a pipeline if someone will tell them how.

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