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A View

Haitian farmers need a hand, not a handout

By Sarah Brownell

There is more than enough food in the world (more than 1.5 times enough, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization), but the poor have been priced out of the market.

In April 2008, newspapers across the United States reported that Haitians were eating dirt. Actually, dirt cookies made of clay, shortening and salt. These cookies are generally used as a homeopathic remedy for diarrhea and as a source of micronutrients for pregnant women. The clay they are made from contains the same ingredient as Kaopectate and some minerals. They were not created to be food, but have become food, because they fill the stomach at a lower price than rice or bread. [See “Let them eat ... dirt?!”]

People in Haiti are not yet dying of starvation. But all the “normal” diseases – such as typhoid, malaria, mysterious fevers, and old age – are killing them faster than ever. They don’t have the strength to fight against illness because of a lack of food. Children are stunted and unable to learn in school. Farmers do not have the energy to till and plant their fields. 

The World Bank reports that food prices have risen 83 percent in the last three years and prices of rice, grain, and corn have increased 50-to-100 percent in the last 3 months. The New York Times cited the following reasons for price increases:

  • Increased fuel prices. Any product that must be shipped by air or ground will have increased transportation costs associated with its price. Also, chemical fertilizers require large amounts of fossil fuels to produce.
  • Rising demand for meat, especially from growing affluent populations in China and India. Meat based diets require about 7 times more land for food production than plant based diets.
  • Droughts related to global warming reducing overall global production.
  • Competition for grains and fertilizer to make ethanol for fuel. About one-third of last year’s U.S. corn production was turned into ethanol and farmers have set aside land specifically for planting crops for fuel.
  • Investment in fuel and food futures is driving up market prices. Even many pension funds have moved out of the volatile stock market and are investing in the futures market.

President Bush has publicly blamed the increases on growing populations in China and India, but a recent unpublished World Bank Report reportedly indicated that the push for biofuels is responsible for 75 percent of the price hike. Fuel costs only account for 15 percent.

Rising food prices are a worldwide phenomenon, yet the effects are more pronounced in a country like Haiti, where people spend up to 75 percent of their income on food. Many families are already barely surviving on one meal a day.

Ironically, food aid from wealthier countries further exacerbates the cycle of dependency and the inability of poor countries like Haiti to sustain themselves. Food provided by international donors in times of crisis is not typically purchased from local farmers, but is imported from wealthier countries that want to support their own farmers. Since the food is donated, it can be given away or sold cheaper than the products of Haitian farmers.
In general, international policies toward Haiti and other developing countries have undermined local food production. During the 1980s and 1990s the International Monetary Fund forced Haiti to open its ports to subsidized rice produced on mechanized farms in the United States. Local farmers using machetes and picks could not compete and went out of business, many moving to the cities to become slum dwellers. Structural adjustment programs tied to loans for infrastructure development also encouraged farmers to plant cash crops (like coffee and sugar cane) rather than food crops, and required governments to support manufacturing and assembly over farming. Haitian national production has dropped 20 percent in the last decade and now more than 60 percent of their food is imported. Increasing reliance on imported food makes the country extremely vulnerable to shifts in the global market.

Sustainable solutions to the food crisis in Haiti must be targeted at enhancing local agricultural production and improving rural livelihoods.

The politics of food

In the political arena, the food crisis appears to have been used by opponents of President Preval’s Espwa party to try to destabilize the government.

It is rumored that during the April 2008 demonstrations, people were paid to turn the protests into riots by burning down gas stations, shooting, and destroying public buildings. A small group of elite Senators had attempted to remove the Prime Minister a few weeks prior to the riots, but could not get enough votes. The violence of the riots gave them the opportunity they needed to secure a vote of “no confidence.”

Without a Prime Minister, funds could not be dispersed for development projects and elections for vacant Senate seats could not be held. Additionally, Haiti missed an important meeting of international donors.

Two potential Prime Ministers proposed by Preval were then rejected by sitting members of the Senate, possibly an attempt to make the Preval government appear ineffective in the eyes of the international community and the Haitian People. A new prime minister, Michèle Pierre Louis, was approved on July 31, which hopefully will allow funding for projects to proceed.

Sarah Brownell, a member of Climbing For Christ from Rochester, N.Y., is the co-founder of Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL). SOIL is working on the north coast of Haiti. Brownell lives and works there most of the year. She is assisting Climbing For Christ with Mission: Haiti in the Chaine de la Selle mountains in southeastern Haiti.

Posted Aug. 25, 2008

Did you know?

After winning its independence from France, Haiti was forced to pay 93 million francs in restitution (the equivalent of $21.7 billion in today’s currency). To pay the debt, all of the public schools were closed and more than 50 percent of Haiti’s forests were shipped across the ocean to build Paris. More than 100 years later the debt was finally paid off, but Haiti had already fallen into a cycle of debt, having taken out other loans to balance its debt to France. For the past century, millions of dollars per year have gone toward servicing interest on foreign loans instead of providing services to the population.

Today, Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the western Hemisphere, with more than 60 percent unemployment and the majority of the population forced to survive on less than $1 per day. The landscape is severely deforested with only 1 percent of intact-forest remaining. The majority of the population does not have access to either sanitation or clean water (only 16 percent of the rural population has access to a toilet). Agricultural production has dropped 20 percent in the past 10 years and rice imports have skyrocketed, making Haiti especially vulnerable to shifts in the international market. Infant mortality in Haiti is higher than any other country in the Western Hemisphere, and preventable illness caused by water-borne bacteria is the leading cause of death in children under 5.

Helping Hands

Please pray for Mission: Haiti and if you can support us financially send your gift to Climbing For Christ at P.O. Box 16290, Rochester, N.Y. 14616-0290. Thank you!


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