THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Roots of Haiti food crisis traced to land issues, floods, trade policy

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times / May 15, 2008

BOKOZEL, Haiti - Although her countrymen can no longer afford the imported rice that has come to dominate their diet, Josiane Desjardin sees little hope of reviving the domestic crop that once grew abundantly in the fertile estuary of the Artibonite River.

There's no turning back the clock, farmers here say dejectedly, in a countryside ravaged by floods, soil erosion, misguided trade policy, and ongoing landownership disputes.

Subsidized US rice began flooding in 30 years ago, so cheap that Haitians began eating it instead of the corn, sweet potatoes, cassava, and domestic rice that had sprouted from plains and mountainsides from the colonial era to the late 1980s.

"Miami rice," as Haitians call the US import, drove rice farmers out of business and incited a rural exodus that swelled the slums of Port-au-Prince.

Today, more than 70 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, and the US rice that is the staple of their diet has doubled in price in little more than a year. Hungry hordes rioted in the capital last month, leaving at least six dead by the time President Rene Preval restored calm by announcing that foreign aid and subsidies would lower the price of a 110-pound bag of rice to $43 from $51.

But importers and economists warn that those supports are unsustainable and predict further unrest in this poorest country in the Americas when the subsidies run out in late summer and, based on current price trends, the same sack will cost $70.

The answer, experts say, is revitalizing domestic production and returning to more traditional foods.

Rice requires large quantities of water and fertilizer, but the former is in short supply because of recent droughts and neglected irrigation canals, and the latter is soaring in cost as fast as the rice it nurtures. Yet even if Desjardin could afford to invest her meager $300 proceeds from the past year's harvest in expansion, the reed-thin peasant has heard speculation about impending land redistribution and worries that the 1.25-acre plot she rents could be seized by the state.

"No one knows what will happen to us," Desjardin, 50, said of the 300 or so families that rent land from Edouard Vieux.

Many Artibonite sharecroppers and tenants were displaced a dozen years ago when Preval, during his previous term as president, oversaw a land reform that took the property of large estate owners like Vieux and carved them into tiny plots for thousands of peasants. But the recipients were never provided with tools, fertilizer, seeds, or transportation, so they couldn't grow the crops the private landlords had earlier financed. Never given legal title, the idle peasants were expelled when owners returned to reclaim their lands after a February 2004 rebellion drove then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile.Back on Vieux's land for the last four years, Desjardin recently harvested her modest paddies.

Of the 12 or 13 bags she produces each year, she needs to keep eight to feed herself and the families of her four jobless children.

The remaining four or five bags bring just enough to pay the annual rent (about $52), buy fertilizer, and pay the local miller.

Even with the lure of record prices for rice, local farmers can't achieve the economies of scale enjoyed by the US growers, says Anasthace Vieux, one of the landowner's 14 children. He recalls visiting a Louisiana rice farm as a student in 1988 and being "terrified by the size of it. It was like a whole country of rice."

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