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Archive for Saturday, April 12, 2008

Soaring food prices add to Haitians’ long struggles to feed themselves

UN peacekeepers pass a boy during a foot patrol Friday at the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince. Protesters abandoned roadblocks and businesses reopened in Haiti's debris-littered capital, but some warned that chaos will quickly return if the government does not rein in soaring food prices.

UN peacekeepers pass a boy during a foot patrol Friday at the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince. Protesters abandoned roadblocks and businesses reopened in Haiti's debris-littered capital, but some warned that chaos will quickly return if the government does not rein in soaring food prices.

April 12, 2008

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— Joseph Francois has a cupboard filled with dishes but rarely takes them out, even at the best of times.

The food riots that gripped Haiti this week made scrounging something to eat even harder. A frenzy of violence and gunfire kept the unemployed father of two from venturing out to beg for three days.

By Thursday afternoon, after the bandits and looters retreated, Francois was able to spend 67 cents on a small bowl of rice to be shared by his two young children. There was nothing left for himself or his girlfriend.

"Most of the time we get up and have nothing to eat. We just pray for the sun to go down so we can go to sleep," said Francois, frayed jeans hanging loosely on his scrawny frame beneath a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt.

Unbearable hunger

Hunger has long been a fact of life in the overcrowded slums that ring the Haitian capital, but soaring food prices have made the struggles of Haiti's poor unbearable. Francois buys rice from a woman whose prices have more than doubled over the past six months, from 27 cents to 67 cents for a small bowl. Other staples like spaghetti have doubled as well. The violence has only made things worse.

"The country was upside down. I couldn't go out, so the kids had no food," said Francois, who lives with 3-year-old Bechina, 4-year-old Charlie and his girlfriend Betty Joseph in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse in a slum called "Ideal City."

The dark cement-block structure has been home since their own house burned down in December. The only light comes from a fluorescent bulb rigged to an electrical wire outside; a television set plays dubbed American movies.

No food could be seen, and the metal pot used for cooking on a charcoal burner in the alley outside was empty.

Globally, food prices have risen 40 percent since mid-2007. Haiti, where most people live on less than $2 a day, is particularly affected because it imports nearly all of its food, including more than 80 percent of its rice.

Much of Haiti's once-productive farmland has been abandoned as farmers struggle to grow crops in soil decimated by erosion, deforestation, flooding and tropical storms.

To make a profit, the farms that remain often price their crops sharply higher than imported American products, which benefit from generous U.S. government subsidies.

Some aid was on its way Friday. Brazil, which has about 1,200 peacekeepers serving in Haiti, sent an air force plane with 14 tons of food, including beans, sugar and cooking oil. France pledged food and other aid worth $1.6 million. The U.N. World Food Program, which had collected only 15 percent of its Haiti budget before the riots, appealed for donations to meet its $96 million goal.

But the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said Friday that high food prices in the developing world are unlikely to subside anytime soon as price speculation and market failures counteract increases in food production.

This spells disaster in a nation where the World Bank says per capita income is just $480 a year.

'We'll all be dead'

Francois, gaunt and balding at 32, doesn't even have that much. Hired as a "transportation inspector" last year by the mayor of the nearby Cite Soleil slum, he has no salary - just an identification card that can be used in the slums to exact bribes or collect fees. His 25-year-old girlfriend also does not work. With no education or skills, their job prospects aren't good in a place where most eligible adults are unemployed.

Mostly, Francois depends on handouts from neighbors and friends. He begs in the street. If all else fails, he hunts for scraps in the garbage piles at the nearby La Saline market, in view of towering stacks of U.S.-produced rice he cannot afford.

Francois and Joseph weren't impressed by the much-anticipated national address of President Rene Preval on Wednesday, delivered as gunshots rang through the capital and protesters yelled for his resignation.

The U.S.-backed leader blamed soaring food costs on Haiti's dependence on foreign imports and a badly damaged infrastructure that makes shipping difficult. A trained agronomist, Preval also pledged to build up Haitian agriculture and make the country more self-sufficient, offering government loans to help farmers afford fertilizer.

His message was lost on this couple. For them, promises to grow more food in the increasingly barren countryside are meaningless.

"By the time rice grows here, we'll all be dead," Francois said. "Preval is a country man. He should go plant rice."

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