Tracing roots of food crisis in Haiti

Times Staff Writer

Although her countrymen can no longer afford the imported rice that has come to dominate their diet, Josiane Desjardin sees little hope of reviving the domestic crop that once grew abundantly in the fertile estuary of the Artibonite River.

There’s no turning back the clock, farmers here say dejectedly, in a countryside ravaged by floods, soil erosion, misguided trade policy and ongoing landownership disputes.

Subsidized U.S. rice began flooding in 30 years ago, so cheap that Haitians began eating it instead of the corn, sweet potatoes, cassava and domestic rice that had sprouted from plains and mountainsides from the colonial era to the late 1980s.


“Miami rice,” as Haitians call the U.S. import, drove rice farmers out of business and incited a rural exodus that swelled the slums of the capital, Port-au-Prince.


Food riots

Today, more than 70% of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, and the U.S. rice that is the staple of their diet has doubled in price in little more than a year. Hungry hordes rioted in the capital last month, leaving at least six dead by the time President Rene Preval restored calm by announcing that foreign aid and subsidies would lower the price of a 110-pound bag of rice to $43 from $51.

But importers and economists warn that those supports are unsustainable and predict further unrest in this poorest country in the Americas when the subsidies run out in late summer and, based on current price trends, the same sack will cost $70.

The answer, experts say, is revitalizing domestic production and returning to more traditional foods.

Rice requires large quantities of water and fertilizer, but the former is in short supply because of recent droughts and neglected irrigation canals, and the latter is soaring in cost as fast as the rice it nurtures. Yet even if Desjardin could afford to invest her meager $300 proceeds from the past year’s harvest in expansion, the reed-thin peasant has heard speculation about impending land redistribution and worries that the 1.25-acre plot she rents could be seized by the state.

“No one knows what will happen to us,” Desjardin, 50, said of the 300 or so families that rent land from 78-year-old Edouard Vieux, a sixth-generation descendant of a slave general awarded more than 12,000 acres for his role in the victorious battle that led to Haiti’s independence from France in 1804.



Peasants expelled

Many Artibonite sharecroppers and tenants were displaced a dozen years ago when Preval, during his previous term as president, oversaw a land reform that took the properties of large estate owners like Vieux and carved them into tiny plots for thousands of peasants. But the recipients were never provided with tools, fertilizer, seeds or transportation, so they couldn’t grow the crops the private landlords had earlier financed. Never given legal title, the idle peasants were expelled when owners returned to reclaim their lands after a February 2004 rebellion drove then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile.

It was the second land recovery for Vieux, who lost all but 740 acres of his ancestor’s estate during the Duvalier era, when the father-son dictatorship sold off most of his property while he took refuge in New York, Los Angeles and Montreal.

Back on Vieux’s land for the last four years, Desjardin recently harvested her modest paddies. She spread the brown-hulled kernels with her bare foot to dry in the sun while explaining the disincentives to expansion.

Of the 12 or 13 bags she produces each year, she needs to keep eight to feed herself and the families of her four jobless children. The remaining four or five bags bring just enough to pay the 2,000-gourde (about $52) annual rent, buy fertilizer and pay the local miller.

Even with the lure of record prices for rice, local farmers can’t achieve the economies of scale enjoyed by the U.S. growers, says Anasthace Vieux, one of the landowner’s 14 children. He recalls visiting a Louisiana rice farm as a student in 1988 and being “terrified by the size of it. It was like a whole country of rice.”

In the three decades since the United States began selling subsidized rice in Haiti, consumption has doubled to 400,000 metric tons a year, forcing Haiti to import three-quarters of its need. The USA Rice Federation last year sold $111.5 million worth here, making Haiti the fourth most important market for U.S. producers, federation spokesman David Coia said.


Those trying to feed Haiti’s poor lament the dependence on costly imports, and they fear for the future.

“In retrospect, it was a mistake [to drop tariffs on U.S. imports], but at the time it looked like the right thing to do because it lowered the prices,” said Clement Belizaire, the son of rice farmers who is project director for the Florida-based relief organization Food for the Poor, which daily feeds at least 30,000 people in the slums of Port-au-Prince.



Fernande Cochard, a widow with eight children waiting at a food kitchen in the Cite Soleil slum for a scoop of cold rice and vegetables, looked perplexed when asked why she didn’t return to her family’s farm in the southwest.

“I would have trouble finding someone to live with,” she said of her family, which has no shelter in the capital either. At least in the city, she added, there are food handouts.

As the food crisis persists, relief workers fear its effect on housing, security, health and school enrollment.

“People can’t afford to send their kids to school now. They need the cash for food,” said John Wesley Charles, Haiti office director for the relief group World Vision. “It’s planting season now, and some people are so desperate they are eating their seeds.”


World Food Program aid in the impoverished countryside over the last few years had halved malnutrition levels in the most vulnerable places, but that success is at risk of being erased by the current crisis. The rising prices are leaving more Haitians unable to buy food, said the United Nations agency’s spokesman for Latin America, Alejandro Chicheri.

Preval, an agronomist with a successful bamboo farm northeast of here, has vowed to get more land into the hands of the peasantry, spurring expectations of another redistribution.

“The problem is that Haiti doesn’t have the land to give every peasant family enough to allow them to make a living,” said Bernard Etheart, head of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform, which Preval created in 1995. Etheart estimates that if all arable land was planted, each farmer would have no more than half a hectare, or 1.25 acres -- the average size of the plots rented by Vieux’s tenants.

Although Etheart advocates transferring ownership of idle private lands to peasants, he concedes that the same obstacles to productivity persist today that turned the 1996 redistribution into a rural disaster.

Those who owned land before the turmoil of the last decades insist that they are the best hope of reviving output.

“We just want to be left alone,” said Max-Edouard Vieux, who complains that local authorities harass his father’s tenants.


He accuses land reform supporters of being behind a Nov. 28 drive-by attack by men who fired on his renters, wounding three of them. Similom Wilgens, listening in on his landlord’s story, pulls up his shirt to show the track-like scar left on his belly.

The Haitian Constitution allows the state to seize lands “in conflict,” which the Vieuxs say has been encouraging a wave of attacks on properties by would-be recipients. Etheart observes with dismay that “every time you improve the value of the land, you are provoking conflict.”

Land reform advocates are also fighting against owners’ use of farmland for any purpose but growing.

“The state should have the authority to intervene in cases where owners are building houses on farmland,” said Charles Suffrard of the Peasants’ Affairs Committee for Integration and Progress.

Committee leaders are pressing Preval to seize and redistribute farmland that is idle, contending that action is needed to grow crops more suitable to Haiti’s climate.

Rice used to be a luxury, not the national dish, recalls Cantave Jean-Baptiste, country director for the World Neighbors rural development agency.


“In my family, we had it maybe once a month, for special occasions,” he said. “People only started eating it as their main food when it was very inexpensive. Now, we need to educate people that rice is not more nutritious than the corn and sweet potatoes we can more easily grow.”