Rescuing Haitian rice production – when will there be the political will?

Rescuing Haitian rice production – when will there be the political will?
November 14, 2012 Christian Wisskirchen
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HSG from Longworth Building, Capitol Hill, Washington DC, 13-11-2012

To Room 1302 of the Longworth House of Representatives Office Building on Capitol Hill for a Congressional Briefing to launch Oxfam America’s new policy proposal paper. Written by Carlos Furche, the former Director General of International Economic Affairs at the Foreign Ministry in Santiago, Chile, the paper sets out proposals to revitalise the prospects of Haitian rice farmers by boosting their incomes and national output, while increasing Haitian food security and food sovereignty.

The rice sector is Exhibit A in the devastation of Haitian domestic agriculture in the past 30 years (see Haiti Briefing No 72, Haiti’s Hunger Games). The overnight slashing of tariffs from 50% to 3% in 1995 and the consequent takeover and expansion of the Haitian market by subsidized US rice are seen as the main villains, having decimated production and thrown thousands off the land. Today Haiti consumes 450,000 tonnes of rice a year, of which just 17% is produced locally, a complete reversal of the picture twenty years ago when Haiti produced more than 80% of its rice needs.

The proposal details prescriptions which all amount to the same thing: prioratisation of the sector within the context of much greater investment and attention to agriculture generally. The paper highlights the need to increase local production of high-quality seed, to subsidise the adoption of specific technological packages and to boost the appropriate use of fertilizers, including compost. In short, serious government investment in training and inputs, mostly through on-the-ground extension services.

The paper highlights the need for real investment in basic infrastructure through improved irrigation and drainage as well as better soil and water conservation plus the need to invest in enhanced drying, storage and milling facilities through rice growing co-operatives and producer organizations.

But it is the tariffs and price proposals that are most notable. Since Bill Clinton’s admission in March 2010 that rice production in Haiti had been devastated by the slashing of import tariffs no one has come forward with a serious proposal for mitigation, let alone a policy reversal.

Admitting that increasing import tariffs to even the regional average (26%) would be “politically impossible” in Haiti, Furche proposes what he calls a minimum rice import price, adjusting tariffs to achieve this minimum price. “It’s a floating tariff mechanism not unlike the EU uses to guarantee a floor price for its farmers,” Fourche noted. He failed to add that given the EU’s general hypocrisy (ditto Washington) on agricultural policy – subsidies and tariffs for us, but not for you for instance — that does not mean it will find any support amongst Haiti’s paymasters.

Furche emphasises that there is no one silver bullet but ranks his policy proposals thus: productivity, first; price guarantees, second; with floating tariffs only third. What he does not say is that all three are of course intimately related. The major price guarantee mechanism he himself is proposing would be funded by an adjustable tariff, while the main reason Haitian productivity has slumped is an inability to compete with unfairly subsidised imports.

Oxfam has now proposed a National Rice Commission in Haiti to push these issues. Furche says the aim should be to double yields from 2 to 4 tonnes per hectare within 8 years and increase the irrigated area in the Artibonite – which produces more than 70% of Haiti’s rice — by 15% to 35,000 hectares within five years. It’s all possible, given the political will, as Vietnam’s preferential investment in small rice producers in recent years has proved.

Oxfam is showing the way with small-scale investments in the Artibonite which Elizabeth Stevens has featured in a series of blog reports. The analogy she uses is a Haitian rice farmer having to carry harvested rice to market in a sack full of holes, the latter being neglected infrastructure, unfair terms of trade, loan sharks and weather threats. Patching some of those holes for some farmers maybe something NGOs can tackle, supplying new sacks for all farmers only the Haitian government can do.

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