RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Help Haiti Help Itself

The earthquake that struck Haiti couldn’t have found a more disadvantaged place. The ruin of the capital city, Port au Prince, is complete, and it will take months to learn and understand what’s happened in the countryside. Watching from the comfort of home, we have felt helpless.

Aid, when it arrives, is ineffective against the poor infrastructure and the rough terrain, the exhausting poverty. And, yet, as after every catastrophe, there’s hope that something better can be built. Haiti is compared to Chicago after the fire, San Francisco after the earthquake — and didn’t they rise, even better than before?

So we imagine building new roads, government buildings, ports, and internet towers, but there are facets of social good that we hardly know where to start to rebuild, or how to replace what was lost. Let’s begin, then, with one clear difference that must be fixed, and quickly: The food system.

Within a week of Haiti’s earthquake, there were food riots and child starvation, but relief workers began reporting as long as five years ago that half the population was malnourished. Then, in early 2008, we heard about starvation in Haiti on a massive scale. Mud cookies, an African tradition that played a bit part of the Haitian diet, to supply a few minerals to pregnant women, had become the only staple available to some stomachs, fooling them into thinking they had been filled. Food prices had risen to a point where the vast majority, earning at most an estimated $1.50 per day, were not able to buy fruits, fish, rice, or other staples that they once raised.

Now we are shipping food to the island. The UN, USDA, even the churches are involved. Perhaps we can imagine a Haiti where everyone is fed for an entire day, an entire week, as the aid pours in. But the hunger has been there a long time.

Haiti was once self-sufficient in terms of food, with rice as an abundant crop, cultivated as it had been in West Africa, original home of the Haitians. The rice was supplemented with fish, chicken, eggs, and locally-raised fruits, and vegetables. This was true until the mid-1980s.

Writing for Bread for the World, Beth Lownik remembered, “Haitians tell stories of the roads through the central Artibonite Valley being covered with drying rice as far as the eye could see.”

With such abundance, there was no need for US rice in Haiti and, indeed, we sold them only about 7,000 metric tons in 1985. Then came “free trade”:

First, 1986 ended with the expulsion of “Baby Doc” Duvalier (remember him?), and the broke government sought loans from the International Monetary Fund. Part of the trade agreement was for Haiti to lower trade restrictions and accept more US rice. In 1986, US imports rose to 24,683 tons and in 1987, to 100,177 tons. Haitians became restless, booting out the president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide (remember him?) in 1991.

Then, in 1994, Aristide returned to power with the help of 20,000 US Army troops. Immediately after, Haiti became part of a new agreement with the IMF that contained a “medium-term structural adjustment strategy” of “sweeping trade liberalization measures.” Haiti’s tariffs were lowered on rice imports from 35% to 3%. In contrast, most Caribbean countries had a tariff of 25%. Haiti’s new tariff made it the Caribbean’s least trade-restrictive country. A new boost for US rice growers and shippers, to be sure, but as Haiti has grown poorer, our prices have gone up. As the bills go unpaid, we send less.

These two events have been good for US rice producers, who saw sales decline as Asian nations developed rice programs of their own. Thus the game is played, but farmers are not the only winners or losers in the import-export game. Besides farmers, there are cleaners, millers, warehousers, transporters and processors that must be in place for a food system to work. In Haiti, these roles were played in a traditional manner remembered from Africa, the drying rice that Beth Lownik remembered. Losing the knowledge, not to mention the farmers, means the loss of the entire system.

Rebuilding a farm may sound like a simple process, but it’s not. Poverty destroys land, and Haiti’s rain forests have been turned into mud slides by desperate people looking for firewood and building materials.

Rebuilding an entire system can take years.

Today, according to Economy Watch, Haiti’s “major exportable items ... are coffee, sisal and sisal strings and manufacturing items ... Importable items of the country are food, fuel and energy and capital goods.” It is a trade-deficit country, importing about three times the value of items it exports.

Among the stupider comments on Haiti was Rush Limbaugh’s “We’ve already donated to Haiti. It’s called the US income tax.” Limbaugh, raised in Cape Girardeau, Mo., just a few miles from the center of US rice production, needs a reality check. But building a system that depends on more aid won’t help Haiti. A better goal is to help Haiti rebuild to take care of itself.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2010

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