Pond-Sonde, Haiti — Haiti’s rice farmers are dismayed. It’s nearly harvest time in this fertile valley where the bulk of Haiti’s food is grown, and they’re competing once again with cheap U.S. imported rice.
Just down the road, vendors are undercutting them, selling the far less expensive grain. Subsidized U.S. rice has flooded Haiti for decades. Now, after the Jan. 12 quake, 15,000 metric tons of donated U.S. rice have arrived.
“I can’t make any money off my rice with all the foreign rice there is now,” said Renan Reynold, a 37-year-old farmer who makes an average of about $600 a year. “If I can’t make any money, I can’t feed my family.”
Last month’s earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people and spurred emergency food needs for more than 4 million has raised a familiar predicament for aid organizations — how to help without undermining Haiti’s fragile economy.
This nation born nearly 200 years out of a slave revolt hasn’t been able to feed itself for more than two decades and now imports most of its food.
Since the quake, aid groups have spearheaded cash-for-work programs, some of which intend to help struggling farmers pay for seed.
They’re also helping with irrigation and crop diversification projects and working with Haiti’s government to analyze soil. But little is being done to change endemic problems, according to Jean Andre Victor, a Haitian agronomist.
He is among analysts who believe Haiti needs radical agricultural reforms — not constant food aid.
“There’s a long history in Haiti of groups like USAID flooding the market with rice and other imports,” said Victor. “This is not what we need. We need real help and that means completely changing the agricultural system.”
Agricultural production accounted for nearly half of gross domestic product in the 1970s. It now amounts to less than a third.
And U.S. rice imports have long eclipsed Haitian production, partly because of smaller local yields from environmental degradation and the lowest rice import tariffs in the Caribbean community.
The earthquake has only exacerbated needs in farming provinces. The government says more than a half-million people have fled the capital for provinces, which lack the infrastructure and food to sustain such a population surge. The coming rains will only make things worse.
When the earthquake hit, Haiti was recovering from about $1 billion in crop damage from 2008 tropical storms. Now, farmers lack cash to buy seeds for the planting season that begins in two weeks, and food prices have already risen 10 percent since the quake.