Monday, April 21, 2008
USA Role in Haiti's Food Riots
By BILL QUIGLEY
Riots in Haiti over explosive rises in food costs have
claimed the lives of six people. There have also been
food riots world-wide in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote
d'Ivorie, Egypt, Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco,
Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
The Economist, which calls the current crisis the
silent tsunami, reports that last year wheat prices
rose 77% and rice 16%, but since January rice prices
have risen 141%. The reasons include rising fuel costs,
weather problems, increased demand in China and India,
as well as the push to create biofuels from cereal
Hermite Joseph, a mother working in the markets of Port
au Prince, told journalist Nick Whalen that her two
kids are "like toothpicks" they' re not getting enough
nourishment. Before, if you had a dollar twenty-five
cents, you could buy vegetables, some rice, 10 cents of
charcoal and a little cooking oil. Right now, a little
can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and is not good rice
at all. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With a
dollar twenty-five, you can't even make a plate of rice
for one child."
The St. Claire's Church Food program, in the Tiplas
Kazo neighborhood of Port au Prince, serves 1000 free
meals a day, almost all to hungry children -- five
times a week in partnership with the What If
Foundation. Children from Cite Soleil have been known
to walk the five miles to the church for a meal. The
cost of rice, beans, vegetables, a little meat, spices,
cooking oil, propane for the stoves, have gone up
dramatically. Because of the rise in the cost of food,
the portions are now smaller. But hunger is on the rise
and more and more children come for the free meal.
Hungry adults used to be allowed to eat the leftovers
once all the children were fed, but now there are few
The New York Times lectured Haiti on April 18 that
"Haiti, its agriculture industry in shambles, needs to
better feed itself." Unfortunately, the article did not
talk at all about one of the main causes of the
shortages -- the fact that the U.S. and other
international financial bodies destroyed Haitian rice
farmers to create a major market for the heavily
subsidized rice from U.S. farmers. This is not the only
cause of hunger in Haiti and other poor countries, but
it is a major force.
Thirty years ago, Haiti raised nearly all the rice it
needed. What happened?
In 1986, after the expulsion of Haitian dictator Jean
Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) loaned Haiti $24.6 million in desperately
needed funds (Baby Doc had raided the treasury on the
way out). But, in order to get the IMF loan, Haiti was
required to reduce tariff protections for their Haitian
rice and other agricultural products and some
industries to open up the country's markets to
competition from outside countries. The U.S. has by far
the largest voice in decisions of the IMF.
Doctor Paul Farmer was in Haiti then and saw what
happened. "Within less than two years, it became
impossible for Haitian farmers to compete with what
they called `Miami rice.' The whole local rice market
in Haiti fell apart as cheap, U.S. subsidized rice,
some of it in the form of `food aid,' flooded the
market. There was violence, `rice wars,' and lives were
"American rice invaded the country," recalled Charles
Suffrard, a leading rice grower in Haiti in an
interview with the Washington Post in 2000. By 1987 and
1988, there was so much rice coming into the country
that many stopped working the land.
Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest who has been
the pastor at St. Claire and an outspoken human rights
advocate, agrees. "In the 1980s, imported rice poured
into Haiti, below the cost of what our farmers could
produce it. Farmers lost their businesses. People from
the countryside started losing their jobs and moving to
the cities. After a few years of cheap imported rice,
local production went way down."
Still the international business community was not
satisfied. In 1994, as a condition for U.S. assistance
in returning to Haiti to resume his elected Presidency,
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced by the U.S., the IMF,
and the World Bank to open up the markets in Haiti even
But, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western
Hemisphere, what reason could the U.S. have in
destroying the rice market of this tiny country?
Haiti is definitely poor. The U.S. Agency for
International Development reports the annual per capita
income is less than $400. The United Nations reports
life expectancy in Haiti is 59, while in the US it is
78. Over 78% of Haitians live on less than $2 a day,
more than half live on less than $1 a day.
Yet Haiti has become one of the very top importers of
rice from the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture
2008 numbers show Haiti is the third largest importer
of US rice - at over 240,000 metric tons of rice. (One
metric ton is 2200 pounds).
Rice is a heavily subsidized business in the U.S. Rice
subsidies in the U.S. totaled $11 billion from 1995 to
2006. One producer alone, Riceland Foods Inc of
Stuttgart Arkansas, received over $500 million dollars
in rice subsidies between 1995 and 2006.
The Cato Institute recently reported that rice is one
of the most heavily supported commodities in the U.S.
-- with three different subsidies together averaging
over $1 billion a year since 1998 and projected to
average over $700 million a year through 2015. The
result? "Tens of millions of rice farmers in poor
countries find it hard to lift their families out of
poverty because of the lower, more volatile prices
caused by the interventionist policies of other
In addition to three different subsidies for rice
farmers in the U.S., there are also direct tariff
barriers of 3 to 24 percent, reports Daniel Griswold of
the Cato Institute -- the exact same type of
protections, though much higher, that the U.S. and the
IMF required Haiti to eliminate in the 1980s and 1990s.
U.S. protection for rice farmers goes even further. A
2006 story in the Washington Post found that the
federal government has paid at least $1.3 billion in
subsidies for rice and other crops since 2000 to
individuals who do no farming at all; including
$490,000 to a Houston surgeon who owned land near
Houston that once grew rice.
And it is not only the Haitian rice farmers who have
Paul Farmer saw it happen to the sugar growers as well.
"Haiti, once the world's largest exporter of sugar and
other tropical produce to Europe, began importing even
sugar-- from U.S. controlled sugar production in the
Dominican Republic and Florida. It was terrible to see
Haitian farmers put out of work. All this sped up the
downward spiral that led to this month's food riots."
After the riots and protests, President Rene Preval of
Haiti agreed to reduce the price of rice, which was
selling for $51 for a 110 pound bag, to $43 dollars for
the next month. No one thinks a one month fix will do
anything but delay the severe hunger pains a few weeks.
Haiti is far from alone in this crisis. The Economist
reports a billion people worldwide live on $1 a day.
The US-backed Voice of America reports about 850
million people were suffering from hunger worldwide
before the latest round of price increases.
Thirty three countries are at risk of social upheaval
because of rising food prices, World Bank President
Robert Zoellick told the Wall Street Journal. When
countries have many people who spend half to
three-quarters of their daily income on food, "there is
no margin of survival."
In the U.S., people are feeling the world-wide problems
at the gas pump and in the grocery. Middle class people
may cut back on extra trips or on high price cuts of
meat. The number of people on food stamps in the US is
at an all-time high. But in poor countries, where
malnutrition and hunger were widespread before the rise
in prices, there is nothing to cut back on except
eating. That leads to hunger riots.
In the short term, the world community is sending bags
of rice to Haiti. Venezuela sent 350 tons of food. The
US just pledged $200 million extra for worldwide hunger
relief. The UN is committed to distributing more food.
What can be done in the medium term? The US provides
much of the world's food aid, but does it in such a way
that only half of the dollars spent actually reach
hungry people. US law requires that food aid be
purchased from US farmers, processed and bagged in the
US and shipped on US vessels -- which cost 50% of the
money allocated. A simple change in US law to allow
some local purchase of commodities would feed many more
people and support local farm markets.
In the long run, what is to be done? The President of
Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who visited Haiti
last week, said "Rich countries need to reduce farms
subsidies and trade barriers to allow poor countries to
generate income with food exports. Either the world
solves the unfair trade system, or every time there's
unrest like in Haiti, we adopt emergency measures and
send a little bit of food to temporarily ease hunger."
Citizens of the USA know very little about the role of
their government in helping create the hunger problems
in Haiti or other countries. But there is much that
individuals can do. People can donate to help feed
individual hungry people and participate with advocacy
organizations like Bread for the World or Oxfam to help
change the U.S. and global rules which favor the rich
countries. This advocacy can help countries have a
better chance to feed themselves.
Meanwhile, Merisma Jean-Claudel, a young high school
graduate in Port-au-Prince told journalist Wadner
Pierre "...people can't buy food. Gasoline prices are
going up. It is very hard for us over here. The cost of
living is the biggest worry for us, no peace in stomach
means no peace in the mind. I wonder if others will be
able to survive the days ahead because things are very,
"On the ground, people are very hungry," reported Fr.
Jean-Juste. "Our country must immediately open
emergency canteens to feed the hungry until we can get
them jobs. For the long run, we need to invest in
irrigation, transportation, and other assistance for
our farmers and workers."
In Port au Prince, some rice arrived in the last few
days. A school in Fr. Jean-Juste's parish received
several bags of rice. They had raw rice for 1000
children, but the principal still had to come to Father
Jean-Juste asking for help. There was no money for
charcoal, or oil.
Jervais Rodman, an unemployed carpenter with three
children, stood in a long line Saturday in Port au
Prince to get UN donated rice and beans. When Rodman
got the small bags, he told Ben Fox of the Associated
Press, "The beans might last four days. The rice will
be gone as soon as I get home."
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor
at Loyola University New Orleans. His essay on the Echo
9 nuclear launch site protests is featured in Red State
Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the
Heartland, published by AK Press. He can be reached at
quigley77@... People interested in donating to feed
children in Haiti should go to
People who want to help change U.S. policy on
agriculture to help combat world-wide hunger should go
to: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/ or
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