April 21, 2008

30 Years Ago Haiti Grew All the Rice It Needed. What Happened?

The U.S. Role in Haiti's Food Riots


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 crops.

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 leftovers.

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 lost."

"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 

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 more.

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 

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 been hurt.

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 

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 

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, very hard."

"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 [log in to unmask] 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: