VERRETTES, Haiti -- The roots of this country's food crisis lies next to Mesidor Sagesse's humble field, where large-scale farming was long ago abandoned in favor of imported ''Miami'' rice.
Following a week of deadly demonstrations over rising food prices that cost the prime minister his job, Haitian President René Préval recently announced government subsidies to cut the price of imported rice by more than 15 percent and to revive local agriculture primarily by reducing the price of fertilizer.
Like elsewhere, Haiti is feeling the effects of rising global fuel and food prices, which have triggered riots in many parts of the developing world. Once a major producer of rice, Haiti's local market sharply decreased after Haitians became hooked on U.S. rice in the mid-1980s. Due to U.S. subsidies, the rice, even though it was imported, was cheaper than the homegrown product.
Today, like most poor farmers in this central rice valley, Sagesse cultivates only enough rice for his family's consumption. With a hefty $40 price tag on a sack of fertilizer and Haitians' appetite for long-grain varieties imported from the docks of Miami, he can't make a living farming.
''The fertilizer is too expensive,'' Sagesse said.
The story is the same in this valley where thousands of acres stand underutilized and irrigation dams and canals are in disrepair. Even the government agency created in the 1940s to unclog the canals and provide farmers with seeds and machinery doesn't have enough money to gas up the tractors.
WEANING OFF IMPORTS
For Préval, the long-term solution to Haiti's hunger problem is to wean Haitians off expensive imports, and revive a once thriving but now ravaged agricultural base.
''We are going to bring down the price to the lowest price possible,'' Préval said a week ago Saturday during a televised address, adding that the current stock of imported rice will temporarily drop from $51 to $43 for a 110-pound bag.
Nowhere are the constraints -- and the promises -- of Préval's challenge more visible than in the heart of Haiti's central rice basket -- the Artibonite Valley, located north of Port-au-Prince.
''You can't have national production without passing through the Artibonite,'' said Josaphat Vilna, executive director of the Organization of Development of the Artibonite Valley (ODVA). ``This is where the best quality of the country's agricultural land exists.''
For centuries, the valley has carried the weight of this nation on hunched shoulders, helping to produce most of the rice Haitians consumed: about 210,000 metric tons annually. Then came cheap U.S. subsidized grains in 1987, which crowded out the domestic market, creating dependence on imports.
Haiti's local rice production today is about 90,000 metric tons annually, or more than half of what it was a generation ago. U.S. rice imports now account for 360,000 metric tons annually, costing $270 million. But with once 'cheap' rice unaffordable because of rising energy costs, Haiti is realizing that opening the gates to global trade and U.S.-friendly tariff policies took its toll.
'In 1987 when we allowed cheap rice to enter the country a lot of people applauded `Bravo,' '' Préval said in another television address. ``Cheap foreign rice crushed the Artibonite rice.''
Vilna, the newly assigned director of ODVA, believes the Artibonite can rise to Haiti's newest challenge, but there is much work to be done.