Haiti is a nation of farmers. Though only about a third of the mountainous country is suitable for farming and the countryside is heavily deforested and losing topsoil, somewhere between 66 and 75% of Haitians are engaged in agriculture.
Marginal land and periodic crop damaging droughts and floods combined with ever-rising food prices and the lowest per capita income in the Western Hemisphere means that hunger for the people of Haiti was part of everyday life even before the earthquake.
In mid-2008, Haitians rioted to protest food prices that jumped nearly 40% in a few months. Yet, at one time, Haiti was an important, and self-sufficient, rice producer. Today, Haiti imports the majority of its rice, making it (at the time this study was written) the fourth largest market for American rice. For such a tiny country, that’s a pretty big achievement.
How did this come to pass? Hunger in Haiti is at least partially a result of stipulations by the World Bank and IMF that Haiti open its economy to cheap US food imports in exchange for loan guarantees, and focus on producing other products for export.
The other problem is Haiti’s own government. Haiti can’t compete with heavily subsidized US rice while Haitian farmers receive almost no investment from their government. According to this article, the United Nations recommends that the Haitian government invest much more in food production, but the government had earmarked only 6.95 percent of its 2009-2010 budget for agriculture.
So where does this situation leave Haiti in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake?
In a word, screwed – unless both International and American aid organizations focus on rebuilding Haitian agriculture in a sustainable, ecological way. Tom Vilsack, Head of the USDA, said on the Rachel Maddow Show on January 14th that his agency, along with USAID, is mobilizing to help Haiti with emergency humanitarian food supplies (around 14,000 metric tons).
He indicated the need for long-term support for Haiti and the rebuilding of the country’s agricultural and non-agricultural infrastructure. Then he mentioned he was working with American food companies like ADM, Cargill and Walmart in the immediate aftermath and that later there would be people on the ground helping the farmers plant their crops.
Uh oh. I truly believe that Vilsack means well, but corporations like Cargill and ADM have a pretty checkered past when it comes to “helping” developing countries build their agricultural capacity.
Usually such efforts lead to environmentally and economically disastrous mono cropping, making small farmers dependent on the company’s seeds and chemicals and driving them ever deeper into debt and misery.
Currently, Haiti is a nation of low-tech human and animal powered farming. It could be the perfect laboratory, much like Cuba was, for developing an ecological agricultural system capable of feeding the people of Haiti. Think about it: unlike our own firmly entrenched system, Haiti is not currently dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, or power. Since fossil fuels aren’t going to be around forever, I hope some of the progressive people at the USDA and USAID prevail and help Haiti to develop agriculture appropriate to its needs, not the needs of Cargill and ADM.
In the meantime, what can you do to help (if you haven’t already)? Many sites have published lists of where and how to donate. I don’t want to duplicate their work. One of my other favorites is Paul Farmer’s organization in Haiti, Partners in Health. They’ve been on the ground there for years and are a trusted organization with a great track record.
Also check out Grassroots Online and Haiti Action.
I’ll be participating in the bake sales this coming weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. And for other food focused folk, the New York Times Diners Journal has published a list of ways the food community is coming together to help Haiti.
Image: Lucas the Experience
This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.