DIY Food Haiti
Why did the Haitian earthquake become a food crisis? I spent the last nine days in Haiti with New Horizons for Haiti working with refugees and personally trying to better understand the answer to this question.
First, by “food crisis”, I do not mean that there is no food available. In fact, upon arrival in Port-au-Prince, I was shocked to see the amount of food for sale on the streets. By food crisis I mean that people cannot afford to acquire that food, and/or their family farms do not produce enough to support themselves. In this sense, there has been an ongoing crisis in Haiti. This crisis became acute with the additional impact of the earthquake.
The situation is shocking considering Haiti’s history. Haiti was the richest colony in the Western hemisphere in the 18th century and produced one-quarter of France’s annual wealth in that period. Haiti was the only nation in history to achieve independence through a successful slave revolt. And in the 19th century, Haiti was far more powerful than its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. The former invaded the latter three times and even annexed the DR for 22 years.
I am not a Haiti-specialist. My area is international development. Yet based on my research and experience in Haiti I propose that there are seven critical reasons (not necessarily listed in order) that Haiti’s food productivity declined and the earthquake became an acute food crisis:
1. Ecological Destruction: Haiti went from 60% forestation in 1925 to 2% forestation today. This is why the country experienced widespread and deadly flooding in 2008 and 2004. Haiti’s remarkable deforestation has also eroded topsoils (decreasing agricultural productivity) and is destroying the country’s aquifers.
2. American Food Imports (aka “Miami Rice”): Haiti is America’s fourth largest market in the world for rice – yes, tiny little Haiti. Most of it comes from American Rice Inc, based in Houston Texas. The Haitians call it “Miami Rice” because of its port of embarkation. American commodity food production is heavily subsidized. Haitian farming is not. After Haiti dropped food import quotas and tariffs in the 1980’s, they went from food self-sufficient to food-dependent. Since 75% of Haitians are professional farmers, the collapse of this industry has widespread effects.
3. International Financial Institutions: Haiti has historically been a major debtor to the IMF and World Bank. These institutions pressured Haiti to drop protections on food imports and to purchase their grains from their more “efficient” neighbor, with the results described above.
4. The “Development” Paradigm: Development policy-makers, both in Haiti, America, and internationally, have been captivated by a certain paradigm regarding “development” and “modernity” for the last thirty years. I describe this thoroughly in “3 Reasons Comparative Advantage Doesn’t Apply to Agriculture”. It helps explain, beyond corruption, why the Haitian government would assent to points #1 and #2 above. Here’s a quote from that piece: “Across the table, Third World policy-makers were transfixed by the paradigm. Since we essentially define 'under-development' as having a large percentage of a nation’s population engaged in farming, policy-makers sought to 'develop' and thus urbanize/industrialize their countries. They therefore accepted cheap American food imports in return for liberalized exports of textiles, electronics, and other manufactured products. “
5. Urbanization: With the agricultural sector collapsing, and development dollars all flowing to Port-au-Prince, millions of Haitians have migrated to the city in search of work. Most can’t find any, or can only find marginal employment, and they live in giant shantytowns surrounding the city. This is a global megatrend. But in mountainous Haiti, many of these slums are built up the surrounding hillsides, creating ripe conditions for a natural disaster to have a high impact.
6. Overburdened Infrastructure: These millions of migrants overburdened Port-au-Prince’s infrastructure. Without heat, gas, or electricity, they burn charcoal for cooking fuel, which is chopped down in the countryside (see point #1). These communities are also sprawling and hard-to-navigate.
7. Extinction of the Creole Pig: Haiti’s national icon was the Creole Pig, a species unique to Haiti and evolved from Columbus’ swine. The Creole Pig was well-adapted to the local environment. It rarely became ill and required few external inputs. It was also the Haitian “bank”, as families would wait to slaughter the pig for a wedding or to build a house. In the late-1970’s and early-1980’s, the U.S. Government pressured the Haitian Government to exterminate all Creole Pigs for fear that a regional swine flue epidemic might impact the U.S. pig industry. The Haitian rural economy has never fully recovered.
This combination of an extremely dense population center in Port-au-Prince, a lack of local food supply chains, and precarious shantytowns built up hillsides, was the perfect storm that turned the Haitian earthquake into unforgettable scenes of hunger and privation for lack of food. America has rallied to provide relief, including massive supplies of food aid. Yet in the long-term, will we repeat the development mistakes of the past, or will we work to help revive sustainable rural industry in Haiti and facilitate their domestic food security?