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Tracing roots of food crisis in Haiti

As the price of U.S. rice soars, experts urge a return to homegrown staples. But farmers find many obstacles.

May 13, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BOKOZEL, HAITI — 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.

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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.

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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.

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