April 21, 2008
30 Years Ago Haiti Grew All the Rice It Needed. What
The U.S. 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 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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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 http://www.whatiffoundation.org/
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