A 7.0 magnitude earthquake occurred 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, causing widespread devastation in Haiti's capital and throughout the country.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti The earthquake not only smashed markets, collapsed warehouses and left more than 2.5 million people without enough to eat. It may also have shaken up the way the developing world gets food.
Decades of inexpensive imports — especially rice from the U.S. — punctuated with abundant aid in various crises have destroyed local agriculture and left impoverished countries such as Haiti unable to feed themselves.
While those policies have been criticized for years in aid worker circles, world leaders focused on fixing Haiti are admitting for the first time that loosening trade barriers has only exacerbated hunger in Haiti and elsewhere.
They’re led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton — now U.N. special envoy to Haiti — who publicly apologized this month for championing policies that destroyed Haiti’s rice production. Clinton in the mid-1990s encouraged the impoverished country to dramatically cut tariffs on imported U.S. rice.
“It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10. “I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.”
Clinton and former President George W. Bush, who are spearheading U.S. fundraising for Haiti, arrive Monday in Port-au-Prince. Then comes a key Haiti donors’ conference on March 31 at the United Nations in New York.
Those opportunities present the country with its best chance in decades to build long-term food production, and could provide a model for other developing countries struggling to feed themselves.
“A combination of food aid, but also cheap imports have ... resulted in a lack of investment in Haitian farming, and that has to be reversed,” U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said. “That’s a global phenomenon, but Haiti’s a prime example. I think this is where we should start.”
Haiti’s government is asking for $722 million for agriculture, part of an overall request of $11.5 billion.
That includes money to fix the estimated $31 million of quake damage to agriculture, but much more for future projects restoring Haiti’s dangerous and damaged watersheds, improving irrigation and infrastructure, and training farmers and providing them with better support.
Haitian President Rene Preval, an agronomist from the rice-growing Artibonite Valley, is also calling for food aid to be stopped in favor of agricultural investment.
Today Haiti depends on the outside world for nearly all of its sustenance. The most current government needs assessment — based on numbers from 2005 — is that 51 percent of the food consumed in the country is imported, including 80 percent of all rice eaten.
The free-food distributions that filled the shattered capital’s plazas with swarming hungry survivors of the Jan. 12 earthquake have ended, but the U.N. World Food Program is continuing targeted handouts expected to reach 2.5 million people this month. All that food has been imported — though the agency recently put out a tender to buy locally grown rice.
Street markets have reopened, filled with honking trucks, drink sellers clinking bottles and women vendors crouched behind rolled-down sacks of dry goods. People buy what’s cheapest, and that’s American-grown rice.
The best-seller comes from Riceland Foods in Stuttgart, Arkansas, which sold six pounds for $3.80 last month, according to Haiti’s National Food Security Coordination Unit. The same amount of Haitian rice cost $5.12.
“National rice isn’t the same, it’s better quality. It tastes better. But it’s too expensive for people to buy,” said Leonne Fedelone, a 50-year-old vendor.
Riceland defends its market share in Haiti, now the fifth-biggest export market in the world for American rice.
But for Haitians, near-total dependence on imported food has been a disaster.
Cheap foreign products drove farmers off their land and into overcrowded cities. Rice, a grain with limited nutrition once reserved for special occasions in the Haitian diet, is now a staple.
Imports also put the country at the mercy of international prices: When they spiked in 2008, rioters unable to afford rice smashed and burned buildings. Parliament ousted the prime minister.
Now it could be happening again. Imported rice prices are up 25 percent since the quake — and would likely be even higher if it weren’t for the flood of food aid, said WFP market analyst Ceren Gurkan.