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Miami Rice: The Business of Disaster in Haiti

Haitian farmers are resisting rice imports they say cripple their chances of real food security.
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Miami Rice

As we file this article, Port-au-Prince is thick with the smoke of burning tires and with gunfire. Towns throughout the country, along with the national airport, are shut down due to demonstrations. Many are angry over the government’s announcement on Tuesday night of which two presidential candidates made the run-offs: Jude Célestin from the widely hated ruling party of President René Préval and the far-right Mirlande Manigat. This is another obvious manipulation of what had already been a brazenly fraudulent election. A democratic vote is one more thing that has been taken from the marginalized Haitian majority, compounding their many losses since the earthquake of January 12.

What is at stake in Haiti? What interests underlie the grab for power in the country? One answer is the large amount of aid and development dollars that are circulating. Among those benefiting handsomely from the disaster aid are U.S. corporations who have accessed U.S. government contracts. Below is the tale of one U.S. corporation and its subsidiaries, who have received contracts which involve both a conflict of interest and harm to one of Haiti’s largest and most vulnerable social sectors, small farmers.

The same company that is being paid to monitor "food insecurity" is benefiting from policies that increase food insecurity. American Rice makes money exporting rice to Haiti, undercutting farmers’ livelihoods, national production, and food security.

“We were already in a black misery after the earthquake of January 12. But the rice they’re dumping on us, it’s competing with ours and soon we’re going to fall in a deep hole,” said Jonas Deronzil, who has farmed rice and corn in Haiti’s fertile Artibonite Valley since 1974. “When they don’t give it to us anymore, are we all going to die?”

Deronzil explained this in April inside a cinder-block warehouse, where small farmers’ entire spring rice harvest had sat in burlap sacks since March, unsold, because of USAID’s dumping of U.S. agribusiness-produced, taxpayer-subsidized rice. The U.S. government and agricultural corporations, which have been undermining Haitian peasant agriculture for three decades, today threaten higher levels of unemployment for farmers and an aggravated food crisis among the hemisphere’s hungriest population.

Two subsidiaries of the same corporation, ERLY Industries, are profiting from different U.S. contracts whose interests conflict. The same company that is being paid to monitor "food insecurity" is benefiting from policies that increase food insecurity. American Rice makes money exporting rice to Haiti, undercutting farmers’ livelihoods, national production, and food security. Chemonics has received contracts to conduct hunger assessments and, now, to distribute Monsanto seeds.

Unable to compete with imported goods and thus unable to survive, Haitian farmers have flocked into the overcrowded capital in search of a living. The devastating toll from the earthquake is in part due to farmers’ inability to remain in their rural homes.

Haiti is the only country in the hemisphere which is still majority rural. Estimates of the percentage of Haiti’s citizens who remain small farmers—or peasants, as they call themselves—are 66 to 80 percent. [1] Despite that, food imports constitute upwards of 50 percent of what Haitians consume. And still the nation suffers under a dire food crisis, with more than 2.4 million of 9 million Haitians estimated to be food-insecure. Acute malnutrition among children under the age 5 is 9 percent and chronic under-nutrition for that age group is 24 percent.

It didn’t used to be this way. In the early 1980s, Haiti was largely self-sufficient in food consumption and was even an exporter nation. The destruction of agriculture and food security came through policy choices. In 1986 and again in 1995, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave loans to Haiti with the condition that the government reduce tariffs on goods imported into the country. While previous tariffs on some staple foods had been as high as 150 percent, by 1995 the Haitian government, under pressure primarily from the IMF and U.S. government, cut import tariffs on food basics to as low as 3 percent.

Unable to compete with imported goods and thus unable to survive, Haitian farmers have flocked into the overcrowded capital in search of a living. They have joined the ranks of the underemployed or been welcomed by sweatshops. And they have taken up residence in shoddily constructed housing built on insecure lands, like ravines and the sides of steep mountains. The devastating toll from the earthquake, with anywhere from 250,000—300,000 killed in and around Port-au-Prince, is in part due to farmers’ inability to remain in their rural homes.

Rice is among the five most heavily subsidized crops in the U.S., with rice growers receiving $12.5 billion in subsidies between 1995 and 2009. The subsidized production and the industrial scale, on top of the lowering of import tariffs in Haiti, combined to become a money maker: beginning in the early 1980s, rice grown in such places as Arkansas and California and shipped by boat to Haiti could be sold cheaper than rice grown in a neighboring field in the Artibonite Valley. With the U.S. television show Miami Vice in high popularity during the time the threat to local producers unfolded, Haitians named the imports "Miami rice."

Between 1992 and 2003, rice imported into Haiti increased by more that 150 percent, with 95 percent of the imports coming from the U.S. The USA Rice Federation claims on its website that 90 percent of the rice currently eaten in Haiti is from the U.S.

The flood of imported rice has shot up since the earthquake. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, USDA purchased 13,045 metric tons of rice for Haiti. In such a dire humanitarian crisis, even Haitian peasant organizations who normally oppose food aid agreed that short-term assistance was essential.

At the same time, however, locally grown food was and is available. “If the foreigners want to give aid, it shouldn’t be food. We have the capacity to produce. They should give us a chance to grow our own food so agriculture can survive,” said Rony Charles, a farmer and member of the Agricultural Producer Cooperative of Verrettes. But a supplemental aid bill in the U.S. Congress —the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act (HEAR)—which, among other things, would have increased the percentage of food aid purchased from Haitian producers, seems doomed because of Republican opposition. Advocacy groups in Washington such as Haiti Reborn will work to get the bill reintroduced in January, but it is unlikely that any local procurement will happen for several years.

ERLY Industries is one U.S. corporation that amply benefits from aid and trade opportunities in Haiti. ERLY is the parent company of American Rice, which has been selling rice in Haiti since 1986 via its Haitian subsidiary, the Rice Corporation of Haiti. By the mid-nineties, American Rice was importing 40 to 50 percent of all rice eaten in Haiti. [2] A press release by the USA Rice Federation, of which American Rice is a member, referred to the federation’s “collaboration” and “proactive efforts” with USDA and USAID in getting rice to Haiti just after the earthquake.

Chemonics, another subsidiary of ERLY Industries, has been running two USAID-funded projects since before the earthquake and received one of the first post-disaster contracts in Haiti, for $50 million from USAID. Chemonics gets 90 percent of its funding from USAID and works in more than 75 countries. One of Chemonics’ focus areas is agricultural work, with many projects aimed at developing international trade opportunities. Chemonics has also been a large beneficiary of USAID contracts in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In March, Bill Clinton formally apologized for his role in having promoted the import of U.S. rice into Haiti at the expense of Haitian farmers.

One of Chemonics’ pre-earthquake contracts in Haiti, as in other countries around the world, (2006-2010) is the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network. FEWS NET II, as it is known, monitors food security and reports on such issues as food prices, climate, and market flows.

Chemonics also holds a $126 million USAID contract for 2009 through 2014 for its Haiti-based Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources (WINNER). Some of WINNER’s stated contract goals include increased agricultural productivity, strengthened watershed governance, and reduced threat of flooding.

WINNER now has a new role of distributing Monsanto’s recent donation of 475 tons of hybrid corn and other vegetable seeds throughout Haiti. While this year’s seeds were free of charge, farming advocates familiar with Monsanto’s history around the world consider the donation a Trojan horse, with Monsanto seeking to gain a foothold in the Haitian market. The full extent to which Monsanto will now join Chemonics and American Rice as economic beneficiaries of the earthquake remains to be seen. Elizabeth Vancil of Monsanto gave “special thanks to USAID and USDA, who connected us to be able to secure this approval.”[3]

Haitian march on Monsanto, photo by Alice SperiHaitian Farmers: So All Can Eat, Produce It Here
Haitians are working to make food sovereignty a key part of post-earthquake rebuilding.

Meanwhile, Haitian peasant groups have declared this donation an affront to their seed sovereignty, which they refer to as “the patrimony of humanity.” [4] Among other problems, they point to the Calypso tomato seeds being treated with Thiram [5], a pesticide additive so toxic that the EPA has banned its use for home gardeners in the U.S. On June 4, for World Environment Day, more than 12,000 Haitian farmers and allies marched in a rural town and burned Monsanto seeds. In the U.S., solidarity groups from Chicago to Seattle did the same. Doudou Pierre, a leading food sovereignty advocate, said that the June 4 action was “a declaration of war.”

In March, Bill Clinton formally apologized for his role in having promoted the import of U.S. rice into Haiti at the expense of Haitian farmers. "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake… 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." Mea culpa notwithstanding, nothing has changed in U.S. foreign aid and trade policies.

As for the March rice harvest grown by Jonas Deronzil, Rony Charles, and other producers in the Artibonite, it finally sold in June for almost exactly two-thirds of what it would have brought in before the earthquake: U.S. $13.27 a sack versus U.S. $20.77.

“It’s not houses which will rebuild Haiti.” said Rosnel Jean-Baptiste of the national organization Heads Together Small Peasants of Haiti. “It’s investing in the agricultural sector.”

[1] The CIA claims 66 percent (CIA Factbook, 2010, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ha.html) while Haitian peasant farmer organizations typically use a figure of  80 percent. [2] Lisa McGowan, “Democracy Undermined, Economic Justice Denied: Structural Adjustment and the Aid Juggernaut in Haiti,” Development Group for Alternative Policies (The Development GAP), January 1997. [3] Email from Elizabeth Vancil, Op. Cit. [4] See, for example, the declaration of Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, director of the Peasant Movement of Papay, “Monsanto in Haiti?”, distributed by email on May 14, 2010. [5] Email from Elizabeth Vancil to Emmanuel Prophete, Director of Seeds at the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, and others; released by the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, date unavailable.


Beverly BellBeverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She authored the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives, and is associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Tory Field is an organizer, farmer, and Program Associate at Other Worlds.

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