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30 Years Ago Haiti Grew All the Rice It Needed. What Happened?
The U.S. Role in Haiti’s Food Riots
by BILL QUIGLEY

Riots in Haiti over explosive rises in food costs have claimed the  lives of six people.  There have also been food riots world-wide in Burkina  Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivorie, Egypt, Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco,  Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

The Economist, which calls the current crisis the silent tsunami, reports that  last year wheat prices rose 77% and rice 16%, but since January rice prices have  risen 141%. The reasons include rising fuel costs, weather problems, increased  demand in China and India, as well as the push to create biofuels from cereal  crops.

Hermite Joseph, a mother working in the markets of Port au Prince,  told journalist Nick Whalen that her two kids are “like toothpicks” they’ re not getting enough nourishment.  Before, if you had a dollar twenty-five  cents, you could buy vegetables, some rice, 10 cents of charcoal and a little  cooking oil. Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and is not good rice at all.  Oil is 25 cents.  Charcoal  is 25 cents.  With a dollar twenty-five, you can’t even make a plate of rice  for one child.”

The St. Claire’s Church Food program, in the Tiplas Kazo  neighborhood of Port au Prince, serves 1000 free meals a day, almost all to  hungry children — five times a week in partnership with the What If  Foundation.  Children from Cite Soleil have been known to walk the five miles to  the church for a meal. The cost of rice, beans, vegetables, a little meat,  spices, cooking oil, propane for the stoves, have gone up dramatically. Because  of the rise in the cost of food, the portions are now smaller.  But hunger is on  the rise and more and more children come for the free meal.  Hungry adults used  to be allowed to eat the leftovers once all the children were fed, but now there  are few leftovers.   

The New York Times lectured Haiti on April 18 that “Haiti, its  agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself.”  Unfortunately, the article did not talk at all about one of  the main causes of the shortages — the fact that the U.S. and other  international financial bodies destroyed Haitian rice farmers to create a major  market for the heavily subsidized rice from U.S. farmers.  This is not the only  cause of hunger in Haiti and other poor countries, but it is a major force.

Thirty years ago, Haiti raised nearly all the rice it needed.  What happened? 

In 1986, after the expulsion of Haitian dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc”  Duvalier the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned Haiti $24.6 million in  desperately needed funds (Baby Doc had raided the treasury on the way out).   But, in order to get the IMF loan, Haiti was required to reduce tariff  protections for their Haitian rice and other agricultural products and some  industries to open up the country’s markets to competition from outside  countries.  The U.S. has by far the largest voice in decisions of the IMF.

Doctor Paul Farmer was in Haiti then and saw what happened.  “Within less than  two years, it became impossible for Haitian farmers to compete with what they  called ‘Miami rice.’  The whole local rice market in Haiti fell apart as  cheap, U.S. subsidized rice, some of it in the form of ‘food aid,’ flooded  the market. There was violence, ‘rice wars,’ and lives were lost.”

“American rice invaded the country,” recalled Charles Suffrard,  a leading rice grower in Haiti in an interview with the Washington Post in 2000.   By 1987 and 1988, there was so much rice coming into the country that many  stopped working the land.

Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest who has been the pastor at  St. Claire and an outspoken human rights advocate, agrees.  “In the 1980s,  imported rice poured into Haiti, below the cost of what our farmers could  produce it.  Farmers lost their businesses.  People from the countryside started  losing their jobs and moving to the cities.  After a few years of cheap imported rice, local production went way down.”

Still the international business community was not satisfied.  In  1994, as a condition for U.S. assistance in returning to Haiti to resume his  elected Presidency, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced by the U.S., the IMF, and  the World Bank to open up the markets in Haiti even more.

But, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, what reason could  the U.S. have in destroying the rice market of this tiny country?  

Haiti is definitely poor.  The U.S. Agency for International Development reports  the annual per capita income is less than $400.   The United Nations reports  life expectancy in Haiti is 59, while in the US it is 78.  Over 78% of Haitians  live on less than $2 a day, more than half live on less than $1 a day.

Yet Haiti has become one of the very top importers of rice from the  U.S.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture 2008 numbers show Haiti is the third  largest importer of US rice – at over 240,000 metric tons of rice.  (One metric ton is 2200 pounds).

Rice is a heavily subsidized business in the U.S.  Rice subsidies in  the U.S. totaled $11 billion from 1995 to 2006.  One producer alone, Riceland  Foods Inc of Stuttgart Arkansas, received over $500 million dollars in rice  subsidies between 1995 and 2006. 

The Cato Institute recently reported that rice is one of the most  heavily supported commodities in the U.S. — with three different subsidies  together averaging over $1 billion a year since 1998 and projected to average  over $700 million a year through 2015. The result?  “Tens of millions of rice  farmers in poor countries find it hard to lift their families out of poverty  because of the lower, more volatile prices caused by the interventionist  policies of other countries.”

In addition to three different subsidies for rice farmers in the  U.S., there are also direct tariff barriers of 3 to 24 percent, reports Daniel  Griswold of the Cato Institute — the exact same type of protections, though much higher, that the U.S. and the IMF  required Haiti to eliminate in the 1980s and 1990s.

U.S. protection for rice farmers goes even further. A 2006 story in  the Washington Post found that the federal government has paid at least $1.3  billion in subsidies for rice and other crops since 2000 to individuals who do  no farming at all; including $490,000 to a Houston surgeon who owned land near  Houston that once grew rice. 

And it is not only the Haitian rice farmers who have been hurt.

Paul Farmer saw it happen to the sugar growers as well.  “Haiti, once the  world’s largest exporter of sugar and other tropical produce to Europe, began  importing even sugar– from U.S. controlled sugar production in the Dominican  Republic and Florida.  It was terrible to see Haitian farmers put out of work.   All this sped up the downward spiral that led to this month’s food riots.”

After the riots and protests, President Rene Preval of Haiti agreed  to reduce the price of rice, which was selling for $51 for a 110 pound bag, to $43  dollars for the next month.   No one thinks a one month fix will do anything but  delay the severe hunger pains a few weeks.

Haiti is far from alone in this crisis.  The Economist reports a  billion people worldwide live on $1 a day.  The US-backed Voice of America  reports about 850 million people were suffering from hunger worldwide before the  latest round of price increases.

Thirty three countries are at risk of social upheaval because of  rising food prices, World Bank President Robert Zoellick told the Wall Street  Journal.  When countries have many people who spend half to three-quarters of  their daily income on food, “there is no margin of survival.”

In the U.S., people are feeling the world-wide problems at the gas  pump and in the grocery.  Middle class people may cut back on extra trips or on  high price cuts of meat.  The number of people on food stamps in the US is at an  all-time high. But in poor countries, where malnutrition and hunger were widespread before  the rise in prices, there is nothing to cut back on except eating.  That leads  to hunger riots.

In the short term, the world community is sending bags of rice to  Haiti.  Venezuela sent 350 tons of food.  The US just pledged $200 million extra  for worldwide hunger relief.  The UN is committed to distributing more food.

What can be done in the medium term?  The US provides much of the  world’s food aid, but does it in such a way that only half of the dollars  spent actually reach hungry people.   US law requires that food aid be purchased  from US farmers, processed and bagged in the US and shipped on US vessels —  which cost 50% of the money allocated.  A simple change in US law to allow some  local purchase of commodities would feed many more people and support local farm  markets.

In the long run, what is to be done? The President of Brazil, Luiz  Inacio Lula da Silva, who visited Haiti last week, said “Rich countries need to reduce farms subsidies and trade barriers  to allow poor countries to generate income with food exports.  Either the world  solves the unfair trade system, or every time there’s unrest like in Haiti, we  adopt emergency measures and send a little bit of food to temporarily ease  hunger."

Citizens of the USA know very little about the role of their  government in helping create the hunger problems in Haiti or other countries.   But there is much that individuals can do.  People can donate to help feed  individual hungry people and participate with advocacy organizations like Bread  for the World or Oxfam to help change the U.S. and global rules which favor the  rich countries.  This advocacy can help countries have a better chance to feed  themselves. 

Meanwhile, Merisma Jean-Claudel, a young high school graduate in  Port-au-Prince told journalist Wadner Pierre "…people can’t buy food.  Gasoline prices are going up. It is very hard for us over here. The cost of living is the biggest worry for us, no peace in stomach  means no peace in the mind.¦I wonder if others will be able to survive the days  ahead because things are very, very hard."

“On the ground, people are very hungry,” reported Fr.  Jean-Juste.  “Our country must immediately open emergency canteens to feed the  hungry until we can get them jobs.  For the long run, we need to invest in  irrigation, transportation, and other assistance for our farmers and workers.”

In Port au Prince, some rice arrived in the last few days.  A school  in Fr. Jean-Juste’s parish received several bags of rice.  They had raw rice  for 1000 children, but the principal still had to come to Father Jean-Juste  asking for help.  There was no money for charcoal, or oil.

Jervais Rodman, an unemployed carpenter with three children, stood  in a long line Saturday in Port au Prince to get UN donated rice and beans.   When Rodman got the small bags, he told Ben Fox of the Associated Press, “The beans might last four days.  The rice will be gone as soon  as I get home.”

BILL QUIGLEY is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola  University New Orleans. His essay on the Echo 9 nuclear launch site protests is featured in Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland, published by AK Press. He can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com   People  interested in donating to feed children in Haiti should go to  http://www.whatiffoundation.org/ 

People who want to help change U.S. policy on  agriculture to help combat world-wide hunger should go to:
http://www.oxfamamerica.org/ or http://www.bread.org/