Hunger Games: Food Policy Disaster Bites Hands that Feed
Haiti Briefing here.
One mamit (5.75lb tin) of rice now costs 150 Haitian gourdes (approx ₤2.24 or $3.57), 50% up since July. Corn meal at 100 gourdes a mamit, has doubled in the last 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 tonnes: rice was 15% lower at 120,300 tonnes, with the root vegetable crop projected to fall 6% to 419,000 tonnes.
The local food crisis is mirrored by an international one. The US-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 this group.
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 Haiti.”
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 tonnes 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 programme of the early 1980s, a response to the threat of African swine fever to the US hog industry. In culling virtually the entire indigenous pig population, the slaughter probably constituted the worst single episode of de-capitalisation in rural Haiti since independence.
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 securitisation 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 land-owning class – successive governments’ main fear – by buying and redistributing their landholdings.
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 tonnes 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 discolour the turquoise sea into which it pours.
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 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 each.
In 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 output.
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 cultivate.
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 famers 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 centres, whose economies they monopolize.
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 the earthquake.
Indeed, the earthquake spawned another huge de-capitalisation 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).
Testifying to the US 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 globalised economy, buy cheap food from industrial-scale producers and sell their cheap labour 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 US 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. That’s how our families survive and raise their children. It’s like our Treasury,” said one distraught, dispossessed and uncompensated local farmer, Pierre Renel.
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 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.
The government’s agricultural vision seems overwhelmingly export-oriented, focusing on coffee, cocoa, mangoes and vetiver. It stresses co-operation 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 programme.
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 next year.
“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 and companies.”
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) http://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/policy/planting-now-2nd-edition and Planting Now: Agricultural Challenges and Opportunities for Haiti’s Reconstruction (October 2010) www.oxfamamerica.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
From Haiti Support Group’s Haiti Briefing no 72 (October 2012): full PDF of issue: