Phillip Wearne, Haiti Support Group
màmit (5.75lb tin) of rice? 150 Haitian Gourdes (about
$3.57), up 50% since July. Corn meal? At 100 Gourdes per
màmit, that has doubled in the past year. Beans? Well, they
are only 210 Gourdes, a mere 40% increase.
It is a measure of the scale of
the food price crisis that Haitians are now using the word
goudougoudou – their imitation of the sound of ground
rumbling in the 2010 earthquake – to denote hunger pains.
Soaring food prices mean the hungriest country in the Americas
is getting hungrier.
The most immediate cause is the
impact of Hurricane Isaac, which devastated crops across Haiti
in late August. Shortages quickly made their impact felt in
markets and shops where the poor, who include many small
farmers, can spend up to 75% of their minimal income on basic
foodstuffs even at "normal" prices.
Isaac followed a drought in
April and May, ensuring a poor harvest for 2011-12. Even before
the hurricane, total cereal yields were expected to be down by
7% to 607,200 tons: rice 15% lower at 120,300 tons, with the
root vegetable crop projected to fall 6% to 419,000 tons.
The local food crisis is
mirrored by an international one. The U.S. farm belt's worst
harvest in 50 years is now sending wheat, maize, and soya prices
soaring. A similar food price spike in 2008, spawned riots
across the globe, not least in Haiti. "Goudougoudou Demands
Change," warns the graffiti now appearing on the cement block
walls of Port-au-Prince.
As ever, Haitians are right on
target in directing their anger at their political leaders. In
the past 30 years, it is the disastrous agricultural policy of
the klas politik rather than the tireless efforts of
Haiti's peasants that has made the country a poster boy for food
dependency and thus price vulnerability.
The technical term is "food
insecurity" and Haiti, considered very food secure just 30 years
ago, now has the third worst level of hunger in the world,
according to the current Global Hunger Index (GHI). Haiti's
status is considered "extremely alarming," with 57% of the
population undernourished and 18.9% of children under 5
underweight, the key factor in a mortality rate of 16.5% amongst
How and why did this happen?
First, there has been a chronic
lack of investment in farming in Haiti. Agriculture, despite
long-term decline, has actually been a remarkably stable
economic base, never accounting for less than 25% of GDP and,
just as crucially, employing more than 50% of the working
population in Haiti. Yet typically, in 2012, the sector has been
allocated a mere 6% of the national budget.
Foreign development aid
spending has been even worse, with agriculture getting a
miserable 2.5% of total foreign assistance in the five years
ending 2005, despite farming being, in the World Bank's words,
"by far the most important social and economic activity in
Secondly, the ruthless slashing
of tariffs on foodstuffs have left Haitian farmers cruelly
exposed to cheap, often subsidized, imports. With import tariffs
in Haiti just 3%, compared to 20% in the Dominican Republic and
an average of 26% in the Caribbean as a whole, imports of rice,
for example, have soared from 16,000 metric tons in 1980 to
467,000 in 2010 (at a cost of $267m), decimating domestic
production. Rice is hardly exceptional. Maize, chicken, pork,
and sugar production in Haiti have all fallen precipitously in
the past 20 years, crushed by imports.
Waging war on peasants
"We have to get away from the idea that
what has happened in Haiti has been the result of benign
neglect," says Chenet Jean-Baptiste, head of ITECA, one of the
country's most effective peasant organizations. "Frankly,
successive Haitian governments have waged war on peasant
agriculture as if it was some sort of threat rather than the
basis of the nation's survival."
Chenet's charge sheet starts
with the USAID-sponsored Kreyòl pig eradication program of the
early 1980s, a response to the threat of African swine fever to
the U.S. hog industry. In culling virtually the entire
indigenous pig population, the slaughter probably constituted
the worst single episode of de-capitalization in rural Haiti
Next came the food import
tariff reductions: from 150% to 57% in one step in 1986,
followed by another overnight drop from 50% to 3% in 1995.
Within a few years, a country that had produced more than 80% of
the rice it consumed, found itself importing more than 80% of
its needs. One of the world's largest and oldest sugar producers
effectively ceased production.
Juxtaposed with what was
actually done was a complete failure to do what needed to be
done, with land redistribution, titling, and securitization of
tenure the key. A limited land reform effort in 1995 was soon
abandoned, even though with perhaps as much as 10% of Haiti's
arable land owned by the state, there was actually little need
to challenge the country's grandon landowning class –
successive governments' main fear – by buying and redistributing
With so little arable land
secure in the hands of those who actually farm it, whether as
tenants, owners, or sharecroppers, farmers have little incentive
to make productive improvements, whilst the environmental
degradation for which Haiti has become a byword, has continued
apace. Deforestation, as clearance for subsistence farming or
for charcoal production, has today left just 2% of the landmass
of Haiti with forest cover.
Meanwhile, largely as a result
of the loss of trees and vegetation, Haiti loses an estimated 37
million tons of topsoil, the equivalent of 12,000 hectares of
arable land, a year. Watersheds and irrigation systems remain
unrepaired or unmanaged, as the country's most precious
resource, topsoil, is washed away to discolor the turquoise sea
by Haiti's second most precious resource, rainfall.
The absence of any loan system
in rural Haiti means that, even if available, credit can cost
small farmers 50% a month. We are not talking about funds to buy
tractors or machinery here, but the absence of the sort of
micro-loans needed to buy hoes, seeds, transport, or any of the
most basic agricultural extension services.
In Haiti, the widespread lack
of basic storage, drying and processing facilities, distribution
or transport services means that at any one time or place,
20-40% of harvests are lost before reaching market. "Frankly,
the past thirty years has been a holocaust, with the Haitian
peasantry and their communities the victims," concludes Chenet
Rural reality: Blame the victims
Today, more than one million Haitians farm
a patchwork of tiny plots known as mouchwa
(handkerchiefs) that average less than one-third of an acre in
size, with individuals often occupying three or more
non-adjacent plots each.
Burdened with a land pattern
that appears fractured beyond all practical use, without support
and, indeed, actively undermined, it is an incredible feat of
perseverance that Haiti's small farmers continue to plant,
cultivate, harvest, process, store, transport and sell most of
the country's varied staple food.
While external consultants
decry the custom that has led to the endless sub-division of
plots of land between all heirs equally, few but those who work
with Haitian peasants appreciate its real meaning: a commitment
to the land, a commitment to farming, a commitment to
sufficiency and stability that the country should cherish and
The failure to work with such
producers, addressing their problems, rather than blaming them
and trying to eliminate their economic base, is a telling
metaphor for Haiti, past and present. In essence, the small-farm
sector's treatment crystallizes the disdain with which the rural
peasantry, moun andeyò - the world beyond Port-au-Prince
- has always been held by those in power.
As such, agriculture's status
is just the most extreme example of the national exclusion of
the poor. Nowhere are there more poor people in Haiti than in
the countryside; nowhere is there less political or even
practical consideration of their needs. Understandably, given
the conditions, rebellion has historically come from the
provinces, where small farmers live: repression, taxation,
exploitation rather than consultation or negotiation was always
Port-au-Prince's first-choice response.
In more recent decades,
agricultural policy, such as it is, has been subordinated to an
unholy alliance of international and national actors. The former
are the foreign governments/ donors, invariably seeking to "open
up" Haitian markets for western business, agro-industrial
corporations in this case; the latter are the Haitian business
elite of the country's urban centers, whose economies they
As migration to the cities,
spurred by the "war" on the peasantry, has soared, the
profitability of monopoly import licenses for foreign
foodstuffs, and, downstream, their distribution and sales, has
grown accordingly. "There are very powerful interests making us
dependent on foreign food imports, both here and abroad," says
Camille Chalmers of PAPDA, the Platform for Alternative
Development. "Increasingly Haitians consume in US dollars but
earn in gourdes. It's a recipe for the disaster we now live."
The exchange rate relationship
serves to magnify international food price spikes, amplifying
Haiti's hunger and malnutrition. Many Haitians are effectively
starved by such a food policy as they strive to meet prices that
are the profits of those who benefit both at home and abroad.
For those civil society
organizations (CSOs) working with peasants and small farmers,
the consequences of such policies have been obvious for years.
What has changed since April 2008, when tens of thousands of
Haitians took to the streets to secure the resignation of Prime
Minister Jacques- Edouard Alexis, is that Haitian leaders and
their international funders claim to have got the message too.
President René Préval boosted
spending on agriculture to 6% (2009-10), then 9% (2010-11) of
the national budget. The latter, although only half what even
the World Bank now considers appropriate in the wake of it's own
2008 mea culpa over the neglect of support for agriculture in
the developing world, was, inevitably, never realized.
Government revenue, along with policy, collapsed in the wake of
Indeed, the earthquake spawned
another huge de-capitalization of the agricultural sector. What
the quake itself did not destroy, a massive reverse migration to
the countryside, imported foreign food aid, and a
post-earthquake tsunami of funding that again largely ignored
Taking out the food chain
Ultimately it was the lunacy of Haitian
agricultural policy and practice that forced those with the
biggest bully-pulpits to take notice. Leading the way in 2010
was Bill Clinton, UN Special Envoy to Haiti and co-chair of the
Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC).
Testifying to the U.S. Senate
Foreign Relations Committee in March 2010, Clinton admitted that
forcing Haiti to virtually eliminate food import tariffs had
been a disaster. In doing so, he noted the blatant transfer of
wealth from Haitian farmers to those in his home state, from
which much of Haiti's rice imports originate.
"It may have been good for some
of my farmers in Arkansas, but it … was a mistake …" he
asserted. "I had to live with the consequences of the lost
capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people
because of what I did, nobody else."
Three weeks later in New York,
Clinton broadened his critique to the neo-liberal economics that
underpinned the move. Such policies had "failed everywhere they
have been tried," he told reporters, going on to refute the
"competitive advantage" doctrine, that Haitians should, in the
globalized economy, buy cheap food from industrial-scale
producers and sell their cheap labor to assembly plant factories
to pay for that same food.
"You just can't take the food
chain out of production … and go straight to the industrial era
… it undermines a lot of the culture, the fabric of life, the
sense of self-determination," he concluded. "We should have
continued to … help them be self-sufficient in agriculture. And
that's a lot of what we're doing now."
Except, taking "the food chain
out of production" is exactly what Bill Clinton and others did,
while "helping them be self-sufficient in agriculture" is not
what he or his policy acolytes are advocating or advancing now.
There has been no move to raise
tariffs, or indeed any statement from Clinton to support one.
When the issue was raised with Tom Adams, the U.S. State
Department's Special Coordinator for Haiti, he argued that
higher tariffs would now mean Haitians going hungry. Such logic
seems to amount to making a growing food dependency the sole
definition of food security.
Settled comfortably in the
driver's seat of the IHRC in 2010-11, Bill Clinton did nothing
to direct even a fraction of the development aid that flowed
into Haiti post-earthquake to agriculture. This, in spite of the
fact that by May 2010 it was the one sector of the Haitian
economy that had a comprehensive national investment plan
awaiting funding, the principal product of the Préval
government's efforts to boost agriculture post 2008.
Indeed, Bill Clinton did
exactly the opposite, pushing though IHRC approval of a massive
$178m assembly plant factory complex in the Caracol Valley on
some of the richest agricultural land in northern Haiti with
unseemly haste. "We grew a lot of plantains, beans, corn, and
manioc here,” said one distraught, dispossessed and
uncompensated local farmer, Pierre Renel. “That's how our
families survive and raise their children. It's like our
In the Caracol valley, three
hundred farmers lost their land and livelihoods. Haiti lost yet
more food production, whilst the leading financier of the
project, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), lost all
credibility when it was revealed it had not even bothered to do
the environmental impact assessment required by its own funding
Agriculture = agribusiness
The Martelly government, knowing, quite
literally, where its corn comes from, has followed its funders'
lead, making little mention of basic food production or family
farms. This, despite the President winning election with a party
named Repons Peyizan (Peasants' Response), with a bull,
perhaps the ultimate small-farmer aspiration, as its symbol.
The government's agricultural
vision seems overwhelmingly export-oriented, focusing on coffee,
cocoa, mangoes, and vetiver. It stresses cooperation with
multinationals such as Coca-Cola in production of a new
"Mango-Tango" soda or the need to supply Starbucks with
specialist Haitian coffee. The emphasis is large, localized,
distinct, foreign-investor-led projects, rather than a small
farmer- oriented, departmental and national, agricultural
While some of these new schemes
may benefit family farmers and the internal market - both
mangoes and coffee are grown on small plots as well as larger
commercial holdings - small farmers are, at best, marginal to
the plans. The clear emphasis is getting Haiti's agricultural
exports up, rather than Haitian hunger down.
"We're changing the dynamics of
how we do agriculture in Haiti," Luiz Almeida of the IDB boasted
to one journalist as recently as August, adding: "When I say
agriculture, I say agribusiness." As such, Haiti's small food
producers could face a slew of new threats: contract farming to
produce high-value vegetables for export; biofuels, such as
jatropha, which many foreign experts believe will thrive in
Haiti, or even GMO seeds and the agro-industrial corporate
dependence they entail.
It is exactly the sort of model
that leads to even greater malnutrition and poverty in the midst
of plantations of plenty, as in so much of the Americas, the
growing threat of which has spawned Oxfam's GROW campaign, a
global, on-going, demand for food justice due to launch in Haiti
"The global food system is
broken," Oxfam declares, citing flat-lining yields, climate
change and weather vulnerability, unfair trade, land grabs, food
price spikes, and failing markets as interconnected symptoms of
failure, linked by "the dominance of a few powerful governments
Few countries yield more
evidence of the combined effects of such forces as Haiti. As
such, local CSOs are currently discussing how to feed into
Oxfam's global advocacy effort abroad, while developing their
own campaign to force the Haitian government to launch a co-ordinated,
cohesive and co-operative commitment to small farmers at home.
Life and death in the Haitian hunger games could depend on it.
For more on Haitian Agriculture HSG
recommends two Oxfam Briefing Papers: Planting Now, Second
Edition: Revitalizing Agriculture for Reconstruction and
Development in Haiti (October 2012), and Planting Now:
Agricultural Challenges and Opportunities for Haiti's
Reconstruction (October 2010) Both available at
www.oxfam.org. To learn more and get involved in the GROW food
justice campaign visit: www.oxfam.org.uk/get-involved/
This article was originally published
in the Haiti Support Group’s publication Haiti Briefing (No. 72,