The Unknown Earthquake in Haiti’s Countryside

March, when next season’s crops are due to be planted in Haiti, is less than a month away. For the tens of thousands who have left the rubble and despair of Haiti’s capital to find shelter in some 500 camps throughout the countryside, it could be their chance to plant a new life for themselves – if only a trickle from the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on occupying forces of foreign armed services and multinational charities is ever released to restore Haiti’s economically devastated countryside.

Haiti’s countryside is the epicenter of the social earthquake that exiled so many impoverished Haitian peasants to exposed and unprotected shantytowns in the capital city where Nature’s earthquake struck in January. The countryside is also where the reconstructive healing can take place, if resources and power are siphoned away from likely master plans of occupying authorities to turn Haiti into an urban-centred maquilladora zone, a centre for producing cheap manufactured goods for export.

Before the earthquake, in large part because of decisions promoted by the two men U.S. president Obama has put in charge of helping Haiti – former presidents Bill Clinton (also the Haiti pointman for the United Nations general secretary) and George Bush – Haiti was a demonstration case of the worst case scenario resulting from deregulated free trade imposed since the 1980s by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization.

No country followed the conventional wisdom ordered by these institutions as completely as Haiti, the unfortunate showcase of the fiasco that befell those in thrall to what was called the “American consensus” of the 1990s. Electrical and water utilities were privatized, for example, not such a bright idea in a mountainous, hurricane- and earthquake-prone country where such services should be subject to public need.

Those considering donations to help the people of Haiti might consider how to invest their money more strategically at a time when vested interests, in collaboration with occupying armies of foreign soldiers and charities, might take advantage of both Haiti’s crisis and uninformed charitable generosity to press ahead with policies that have already been shown to be disastrous.

The Haitian countryside is where over two-thirds of Haitians live, and the first place “second responders” – people trying to assist with rebuilding, as distinct from emergency relief — should look if they’re wondering about two things. Question one: why did so many people leave the land to move into an overcrowded city that provided no earthquake-proofed housing even though it was atop a high-risk earthquake zone? Question two: what has it been so hard for the survivors of the earthquake to get access to food and water when so near to a countryside once plentiful with rice, potatoes, tomatoes, greens, bananas, cassava, peas, corn, papaya and mango? Was there a famine that no-one reported?

Until the 1980s, Haiti was 80 per cent self-reliant in food, as well as an exporter of coffee, sugar, cacao and meat. But in the period just prior to the earthquake, Haiti had become a food dependency, which imported 340 of the 420,000 tonnes of rice Haitians consumed, 30 of 31 million eggs consumed, and so on, according to a petition from Haitian agronomy students in 2008.

Accounting for the fact that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, 80 per cent of local farmers in the period just before the earthquake earned less than $135 dollars a year. Even the money to buy food imports came from off-shore; remittances from relatives working abroad made up 35 per cent of the country’s income base.

Just prior to the earthquake, organizations of both peasants and agronomists complained that the government spent less than seven per cent of its budget on agricultural improvements, mostly under the control of some 800 Non-Government Organizations relying on foreign connections. (Haiti has over 4000 NGOs, more per person than any country in the world, but that is another story.)

In Haiti’s remarkably well-organized and politically literate society, others besides the agronomy students give voice to the needs of rural and agricultural renewal. The National Congress of Papaye Peasant Movement, for example, has 100,000 members who count on it for a variety of self-help measures, including co-ops and agro-tourism initiatives. The organization champions reintroduction of Haiti’s “creole pig,” adapted to Haiti’s mountainous environment and long the basis for food security of farm families before the U.S. applied pressure for their eradication lest they spread swine fever.

This organization is just one of many local self-reliance, self-help and entrepreneurial movements that mushroomed in the countryside following the fierce hurricanes of 2008. Aside from modest assistance they receive from alternative charities such as Grassroots International, most have been elbowed aside by city-oriented organizations backed by giant international funders.

Desperate conditions in the countryside date – at least in terms of recent history – to 1995, the heyday of global free trade in food and the elimination of public supports for domestic food producers throughout the Global South. (The advice came from the Global North, which chose to follow it in the breach rather than the observance.)

As a condition of renegotiating repayment dates on over a billion in loans, much of it dating to the period of the Duvalier family dictatorship over Haiti from the 1950s through the 1980s, the International Monetary Fund insisted that Haiti reduce its tariff against rice imports to a negligible three per cent — about 20 per cent below the Caribbean average. What was called “Miami rice,” mostly imports from one US rice company, invaded the island.

According to an exhaustive 2004 study by Josiane Georges, the imports of US-subsidized cheap rice turned Haiti into the largest rice importer in the western hemisphere and the fifth biggest importer in the world of US rice. A major cash crop of Haitian peasants was destroyed, the value of farm production in the GDP plummeted, and the longstanding and nutritious tradition of mountain rice was displaced by the cheap but empty calories of milled U.S. rice.

The two presidents presiding over the Farm Bill that subsidizes U.S. rice exports to the tune of over one billion dollars a year were Bill Clinton and George Bush. They are now positioned to direct Haiti’s recovery if the good Samaritans who donated so generously to support Haitians after the earthquake do not twig to conflicts over strategies of reconstruction.

With files from Meyer Brownstone.

(adapted from NOW Magazine, February 11-17, 2010)

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