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Archive for Friday, March 7, 2008

As Haitians starve, tons of food sit at country’s ports

March 7, 2008

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— While millions of Haitians go hungry, containers full of food are stacking up in the nation's ports because of government red tape - leaving tons of beans, rice and other staples to rot under a sweltering sun or be devoured by vermin.

A government attempt to clean up a corrupt port system that has helped make Haiti a major conduit for Colombian cocaine has added new layers of bureaucracy - and led to backlogs so severe they are being felt 600 miles away in Miami, where cargo shipments to Haiti have ground almost to a standstill.

The problems are depriving desperate people of donated food. Some are so poor they are forced to eat cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable oil to satisfy their hunger.

An Associated Press investigation found the situation is most severe in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city. One recent afternoon, garbage men shoveled a pile of rotting pinto beans that had turned gray and crumbled to dust as cockroaches and beetles scurried about.

The men had found the putrid cargo by following a stench through stacked shipping containers to one holding 40,000 pounds of beans. It had been in port since November.

"So many times, by the time (the food) gets out of customs it's expired and we're forced to burn it," said Susie Scott Krabacher, whose Colorado-based Mercy and Sharing Foundation has worked in Haiti for 14 years. "The food is there. It is available. It just can't get to the people."

Though it is unclear how much of Haiti's food supply is tied up in the port delays, the effects could be serious. Haiti imports about 75 percent of its food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And there is little room for error in a country where the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported that almost half the population was undernourished in 2002.

The U.N. World Food Program and large-scale U.S. rice growers say they have been able to get their food into Haiti by hiring local agents to handle bureaucratic procedures.

But smaller charities, merchants and private citizens have often been forced by the delays to throw away containers of food or pay exorbitant fees.

The problems stem in part from efforts to clean up a port system the World Bank recently ranked as the second-worst in the region, ahead of only Guyana.

Before the changes were implemented last fall, bribes flowed freely and goods passed through unsearched and without duties being paid. That deprived the government of money and helped make Haiti a major transshipment point for Colombian cocaine destined for the United States.

The international community has encouraged Haiti's customs reform efforts, with the U.S. government helping fund port security and U.N. peacekeepers stepping up anti-smuggling patrols along the coast and Dominican border.

But new requirements for licenses and manifests in triplicate have overwhelmed poorly trained workers and the country's archaic, handwritten customs system.

Unlike U.S. ports, where less than 5 percent of containers were scanned last year and only a fraction of those opened up and inspected, Haitian cargo handlers said each container at Cap-Haitien must now be completely emptied and inspected. Customs chief Jean-Jacques Valentin said that policy was Haiti's own decision.

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