Haiti’s rice farmers are dismayed. It’s nearly harvest time in this fertile valley where the bulk of Haiti’s food is grown, and they’re competing once again with cheap rice imported from the US.
Just down the road, vendors are undercutting them, selling the far less expensive grain. Subsidized US rice has flooded Haiti for decades. Now, after the Jan. 12 quake, 15,000 tonnes of donated US rice have arrived.
“I can’t make any money off my rice with all the foreign rice there is now,” said Renan Reynold, a 37-year-old farmer who makes an average of about US$600 a year. “If I can’t make any money, I can’t feed my family.”
Last month’s catastrophic earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people and spurred emergency food needs for more than 4 million has raised a familiar predicament for aid organizations — how to help without undermining Haiti’s fragile economy. Haiti hasn’t been able to feed itself for more than two decades and now imports most of its food.
Since the quake, aid groups have spearheaded cash-for-work programs, some of which intend to help struggling farmers pay for seed. They’re also helping with irrigation and crop diversification projects and working with Haiti’s government to analyze soil.
But little is being done to change endemic problems, said Jean Andre Victor, a Haitian agronomist. He is among analysts who believe Haiti needs radical agricultural reforms, not constant food aid.
“There’s a long history in Haiti of groups like USAID [US Agency for International Development] flooding the market with rice and other imports,” Victor said. “This is not what we need. We need real help and that means completely changing the agricultural system.”
Agricultural production accounted for nearly half of GDP in the 1970s. It now amounts to less than a third.
And US rice imports have long eclipsed Haitian production owing in part to smaller local yields because of environmental degradation and the lowest rice import tariffs in the Caribbean community.
The USAID, which has been working in Haiti for decades, is providing more than US$400 million in earthquake aid, with US taxpayers set to give some US$113 million in food aid alone this year.
But US farmers also stand to benefit from the earthquake.
Last year, Washington paid farmers US$12.9 billion in subsidies, which critics say have unfairly deflated world prices. That makes it harder for poorer nations to develop their economies by expanding markets abroad.
Paul O’Brien of Oxfam America says the lessons of the harm of flooding a country like Haiti with subsidized rice should have been learned a long time ago.
“The days are gone when we can throw up our hands in terms of unintended consequences; we know now what these injections can do to markets,” he said. “The question we want asked is what is being done to guarantee long-term food security for Haitians.”