Haiti's farmers have been at a competitive disadvantage with foreign farmers who enjoy lavish subsidies from their governments. For example, between 1995 and 2012, the United States bolstered its farmers with 256 billion dollars in government sponsored subsidies. By contrast, Haiti's agricultural sector has been weakened by a series of government policies which failed to manage some of it most precious commodities. In collaboration with foreign governments, Haiti's policies have often failed to protect the cultivation of rice, the raising of livestock, and the harvesting of trees for fruit, lumber, and charcoal. Exacerbating these failures has been unchecked population growth which has reduced available agricultural land and contributed to the country becoming evermore dependent on food imports.
Today, the country imports so much rice, the farmers who once cultivated this grain are being displaced. As cheaper rice imports displace the rice grown by local farmers, the Haitian art of cultivating rice as well as the specie of rice produced in Haiti may forever be lost. Rice is one of the pillars of Haiti's economy. A staple of the Haitian diet, it has been cultivated in Haiti's Artibonite Valley in much the same way it was cultivated in Ginen, the west coast of Africa where the Mede people have been cultivating and developing the current Haitian cultivar of rice for the past 3,500 years. Rice is so intrinsically linked to Haitian culture that one of Haiti's major deities, the Lwa Azaka, patron spirit of agriculture, is considered a rice farmer. In the Mede language, Lwa Azaka is often called Nèg Baboul, meaning man of the rice fields.
The Haitian rice is a short grain rice which is more tolerant to poor soil and is more resistant to weeds. It appears to have been brought to Haiti during the time of the Trans-Atlantic trade and cultivated since then by people through an unbroken chain of apprenticeship going all the way back to Ginen. Today, it is the Asian long grain rice that is being imported to Haiti and displacing the more healthy African rice which contains more fiber than its Asian counterpart.
Prior to the 1980's, rice was considered a cherished meal, eaten mainly on Sundays, holidays, and other special occasions. On regular days, people consumed cornmeal, beans, millet, breadfruit, plaintains, yams, yucca, sweet potatoes, soups, and various legumes. Seafood, goat, chicken, pork, or beef usually accompanied the family's daily meal. Different meals were eaten on different days. For example, Saturdays were for Bouyon Samdi. This varied diet was healthier for the population and helped to minimize risk from vitamin and micro-nutrient deficiencies. Today, rice is consumed every day, with consumption rising from 50 thousand metric tons in 1980 to over 400 thousand metric tons in the year 2000. Almost all of this increase is due to the nearly unregulated importation of foreign rice.
Meantime, Haitian rice production has suffered at the hands of its own government, often at the urgings of foreign powers. In 1941, President Elie Lescot obtained the equivalent of 68 million dollars to plant sisal to be used for rubber production to supply US military needs in World War II. People were forcibly removed from their land. Fifty six thousand acres were bulldozed to make way for this new American desired plant. Rice fields were destroyed. In Jeremie alone, 6 million fruit trees were destroyed resulting in food shortages and rising food prices which further impoverished the population. When the war ended, so did the need for sisal, but the damage to Haiti's local economy and food production was done. Haiti has yet to recover from this damage.
Another assault on Haiti's agriculture arose from a US global policy to increase market share for US agricultural products. This policy helped to ensure that the US earned a return on the subsidies that it provided to its farmers. In Haiti, the US goal was to export more and more of its Asian rice to Haiti. The US prefers to grow Asian rather than African rice because the Asian variety can more easily be harvested by machines as the grains do not disperse from the plant as easily as the African variety.
Repeatedly, the United States encouraged the Duvalier dictatorship to reduce Haiti's tariffs on imported American rice. When Jean Claude Duvalier left the country in 1986, he left the state coffers bare. His successors turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency loan of 28 million dollars. The IMF obliged but with the stipulation that Haiti would have to reduce its tariff on imported rice. The IMF described this stipulation as a “ structural readjustment” plan to stimulate growth in poorer economies. Within one year of this structural readjustment, rice imports to Haiti quadrupled, increasing from 25 thousand metric tons to 100 thousand metric tons. The Haitian government, along with the IMF, implemented the structural readjustment without consulting Haitian farmers who would be most affected by this policy change. Unbeknownst to the people of the Latibonit region, their livelihood was undermined at the highest offices of international banking and commerce.
Unable to influence government policy, Haitian rice farmers fell into deeper poverty as cheap American rice flooded the Haitian market. Unlike Japanese rice farmers, the Haitian farmers lacked the political muscle to influence those who set policy. Haitian farmers can only dream of having the clout of Japanese farmers who convinced their government to impose a 777% tariff on imported rice. When President Martelly visited Japan, he asked their government to help Haiti increase its rice production. Apparently, they did not reveal the secret of their high tariff.
Foreign banks and governments have exploited Haiti's instability to further expand their market share while claiming to be assisting the country with job creation and poverty reduction. In 1994, during the negotiations for the return of Aristide's administration, rice farmers in Haiti would take another blow. In exchange for US assistance in reinstating his government, Aristide agreed to lower the country's rice tariff on rice from 50% to a mere 3%. Within a year of doing this, the quantity of imported rice doubled from 87 thousand metric tons to 191 thousand metric tons. As cheap “Miami Rice” flooded the Haitian market, numerous rice farmers in the Latibonit region were forced to abandon rice cultivation for a new life in Port-au-Prince, in the Dominican Republic, or overseas. Unfortunately, rather than finding new careers, many would find their death in the 2010 Earthquake in Port-au-Prince.
In a statement acknowledging the complicity of the US government in forcing Haitian leaders to reduce tariffs on imported US rice, former President Bill Clinton acting as the UN Envoy to Haiti apologized and said:
“Since 1981, the United States has followed a policy until the last year or so, we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so thank goodness they can leap directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It’s maybe been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake, it was a mistake that I was a party to. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did. Nobody else (Clinton 2010)”.
Of course, Bill Clinton was not the only one to blame for this failed policy. Haitian leaders acquiesced to it and contributed to the impoverishment of Haiti's farmers. But unlike Clinton, no Haitian leader has ever apologized for endorsing the policy. The closest we have gotten to an apology was Aristide who stated on his return that he committed a little sin but that sin was left to interpretation. He never said that the sin was his agreeing to lower tariffs and open the door to more rice importation. Beyond President Aristide, President Martelly also helped foreign rice gain a greater foothold in Haiti by advertising for foreign rice and by agreeing to have his carnival performances sponsored by foreign rice importers.
Today, imported rice is big business and it is controlled by a few wealthy, well connected and politically savvy individuals. These businessmen have been cautious to present foreign rice as a local product. They have taken care to do this despite that for other commodities, the exotic, the imported is generally more prestigious in Haiti. In Haiti, rice is a very special commodity and its importers know it. They are acutely aware of the potential public unrest that can erupt as imported rice deepens our poverty and reliance on foreign food imports. Foreign rice in Haiti is called anything but foreign. It is marketed under such brands as Diri Lakay, Diri Tchako, and Diri Madan Gougous.
Haiti desperately needs to protect its national production of rice. It must do so to safeguard its economy and to preserve its long standing heritage of being heir of the people who developed one of the only two species of rice that exist on the planet, African rice and Asian rice. Africans developed this rice by crossing wild grains until they got a type that they liked. The displacement of Haitian rice producers risk eliminating 3,500 years of accumulated experience in rice cultivation.
Considering that the United States, followed by Brazil are the main exporters of rice to Haiti, it would be nearly impossible for Haiti to stand up to these powerful nations to argue for a more locally sensible rice policy. So, if Haiti wants to reinstate a meaningful rice tarriff, it should seek strength in numbers and exploit its status as a member of the Caribbean Community. Today, just like Haitians used to do, Jamaicans continue to eat rice only on special occasions. They are able to do this in part because many members of the Caribbean Community impose a 25% tariff on foreign rice. Haiti should argue for a uniform rice policy across the Caribbean Community member nations. This could also simplify operating procedures for large rice exporters who could operate throughout the Caribbean under one set of rules.
In trying to improve the lot of its farmers and of its population, Haiti needs to help its foreign partners better understand their interest. It is in their interest to help Haiti improve its rice production and keep its farmers employed to avoid more immigrants flooding their shores in search of a livelihood. Haiti's foreign partners must be made to understand that bad rice policy is bad social policy for their shores. These foreign partners must be made to understand that they have helped to do considerable damage, and they must be good partners in redressing these wrongs.
Within Haiti, rice importers have developed expertise in efficiently distributing the commodity. They even permit the rice to be purchased in a foreign country and delivered almost instantaneously to a designated consumer in Haiti. The Haitian government needs to encourage these distributers to apply their know-how to local rice distribution. Such a policy could reassure current foreign rice importers that they have a viable future in helping to buttress local Haitian rice production.
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Josiane George. Trade and the Disappearance of Haitian Rice. TED case studies number 725, 2004.
Judith A Carney. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Harvard University Press. 2002
Laurent Dubois. The Aftershock of History. Metropolitan Books. New-York, 2012
Marc Cohen. Diri Nasyonal ou Diri Miami? Food, agriculture and US-Haiti relations. Food Sec. (2013) 5:597–606