Aftershocks: Haitian Rice

Image courtesy of vitasamb2001

Image courtesy of vitasamb2001

As I have watched the horrors of Haiti unfold from my safe and comfortable living room, I am continually saddened by a sense of ineffectiveness, of wanting to do more than write another check or say another prayer. I wish I could have an impact, do something to directly improve their lot, participate in a more meaningful way. I started to do some research to see if I could purchase goods from Haiti, and subsequently and came across information that was as familiar as it is disturbing. Despite adequate natural resources, Haiti cannot feed itself, much less produce many exports to support their own trade.

Once upon a time, Haiti actually grew much of its own food and even exported it round the world. Among other things, they grew coffee, sugar, and rice. The latter was and is the most important staple of the Haitian diet, present in nearly every meal and often eaten with beans. Local rice was grown in the mountains (largely subsistence farming) and the Artibonite Valley, where swamps produced highly nutritious rice.

After Baby Doc’s departure in 1986, Haiti desperately needed funds to make up for those their deposed dictator took with him. They cut a deal with the IMF (through heavy US pressure) for $24.6 million. Terms of the loans included requirements to reduce tariffs on rice and other products, and essentially open their markets to outside countries. Now, like many crops US rice is heavily subsidized by the US government, therefore less expensive on the open market. Haiti no longer had any import tariffs nor export subsidies that kept local rice prices competitive. And global food prices across the board were very inexpensive. Lo and behold, it soon became cheaper for Haitians to purchase less nutritious, imported, US rice (also known as ‘Miami rice’) than to buy it from their local resources.

Sound familiar? The same US policies that have subsidized corn and soy have all but eliminated local farming and squeezed prices for domestically grown, non-subsidized agriculture. The same paradigm and related policies in the US was equally implemented in Haiti. The arguments? Cheaper food meant more people would be fed (albeit less nutritiously). And of course open markets yield better trade and more efficient local and global economies.

In 2008 food prices across the globe sky rocketed, including rice. Food riots broke out all over the world, and although much of the US press focussed on SouthEast Asia and Mexico, Haiti was not spared this experience. People could no longer afford to purchase Miami rice, and the local means for farming had been all but extinguished. Many former farmers had moved to the cities to perform sweat shop labor. And so people who already went without went hungry.

According to the World Factbook, in 2007 Haiti imports totaled $1.844 billion while exports totaled $554.8 billion. The US sells almost half of these imports to Haiti, significantly rice.

Most US rice exported to Haiti comes from the American Rice Inc., a Houston based subsidiary of the global food giant Grupo SOS. In 2003, the SEC imposed sanctions on American Rice and several of their employees, Inc for attempting to bribe Haitian officials to illegally reduce import taxes.

According to the Grupo SOS 2008 annual report, increasing rice sales is one of their two top priorities (olive oil sales being the other). The report shows that rice sales and profits increased significantly in 2008.

Sales by business line
18.2 & 2006
19.9% 2007
25.9% 2008

EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) by business line

2006 14.8%
2007 18.1%
2008 75.5%

The report also notes that “The rice business performed exceptionally well in 2008, becoming the group’s biggest earner in this period.” The largest exporter of US subsidized rice profited and grew in the same year that food riots broke out in Haiti, one of its biggest customers. Much like oil profits were up during the gas crisis, and bank profits are up while people are losing their homes.

It seems like another case either of well intended policies gone awry or just pure greed. Take your pick, either resulted in a country that cannot feed itself. In the best of times, Haitians have been forced to eat less nutritious, (artificially) less expensive rice and have lost a major export/source of income. In the worst of times,they have no local food resources to fall back upon, and are forced to wait for imports to sustain them. I cannot help but wonder if the swamps where rice was once grown might still be standing. Or if the Haitian people had been able to maintain a self-sustaining, local agricultural model, the devastating problem of how to feed this country would be less amplified.

Obviously the short term concern is getting fresh water, supplies, and medical relief to the citizens of Haiti. But next up is rebuilding that country. Hopefully, the process will include better economic and agricultural policies, both globally and locally. In the meantime, in addition to sending them aid and prayers, we should be sending them our fair trade dollars for their available (limited) coffee beans, and encouraging them toward developing more like products including rice to sell at home and (once sustainable) abroad.

In addition, here are some other ideas on how to help:

Sign a petition to relieve Haiti of it’s debt; it seems they have more than paid their loans through purchasing subsidized global imports such as US rice.

Send a note to Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and other coffee companies asking them to carry fair trade Haitian beans.

Purchase Haitian products and encourage business growth:
Cybercuchina (coffee)
Bonazle (coffee)
The Rainforest Site (crafts)
The Hunger Site (crafts)

It seems like an appropriate effort for this Tu Bishvat. “For man is the tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19).

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One Response to “Aftershocks: Haitian Rice”

  1. Hannah Lee Says:

    Thank you for this post, Julie! Maybe David Brooks of The New York Times should read this, coming after his scathing column on the socioeconomic failures of Haiti compared to its neighbors.

    Ruth Messinger of The Jewish World Service has talked and written about this negative impact of America’s foreign aid on the indigenous economies.
    From AJWS’s website: “In response to the earthquake on January 12th in Haiti, AJWS has created the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund to send immediate emergency aid to communities affected by this disaster. Particular focus is being placed on aiding populations in the crisis zone but that have not already been targeted for large-scale relief, such as poor and rural areas outside Port-au-Prince. AJWS’s long-standing partnerships in the region have enabled us to send funding directly to our grantees in hard-hit areas on the ground who have the knowledge and capacity to spend the money effectively where it is most immediately needed.”

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