Haiti’s hunger games: Disastrous food policy bites hands that feed

by Phillip Wearne, Haiti
One 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.
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.

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”
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.
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.
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.
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 this group.
and why did this happen?
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.
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 Haiti.”
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.”
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 since independence.
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.
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 their landholdings.
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.
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.
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
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 Jean-Baptiste.
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
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.
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 cultivate.
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.
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.
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 monopolize.
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.”
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.
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.
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
the earthquake.
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 agriculture, did.
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).
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 Treasury.”
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 protocols.
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.
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 support
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
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.
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 next year.
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 and companies.”
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
(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/ campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/grow
This article was originally published in the Haiti Support Group’s
publication Haiti Briefing (No. 72, Oct. 2012).
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.
Photo by Elizabeth Whelan/Partners in Health