Crop fields hold hope in 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.


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.

''We are not ready to respond to the reality,'' he said, painting a portrait of a valley plagued by neglect and an agency weakened by corruption and lack of funds. Last year only 61,700 acres out of 98,842 acres were actually cultivated for rice, Vilna said.

''Neither the canals nor the drainage system are in proper working condition. The farmlands are not in shape for them to produce,'' he said.

The biggest challenge: money. The bulk of the agency's $1.6 million budget goes to the salaries of 423 employees, with only $106,000 left for operations, he said.

To be competitive, he noted, the irrigation systems need to be fixed and expanded so water can properly circulate; quality seeds are needed for farmers. Bulldozers, tractors and other agricultural equipment must be purchased.

''The Artibonite merits a special kind of attention regardless of which government is in power,'' said Vilna, 45, who estimates the valley needs at least $1 billion in investment. ``It's the biggest wealth the government has for national production.''


While some doubt the country will ever produce enough to feed its 8.5 million citizens, the United Nations Development Program resident representative in Haiti said revamping agriculture here is critical to addressing Haiti's food crisis.

And agriculture reform must include a comprehensive program for rural areas, said Joel Boutroue, the U.N. representative. This includes organizing and coordinating peasant groups and infrastructure repair.

''It's not only a question of fertilizer and improved seeds. It's all of the tools; it's sort of reenergizing the whole ministry of agriculture with its extension workers and making them do the work that they are supposed to carry out,'' Boutroue said.

``We need indeed to have political will to have a real reform of the agricultural sector.''

As part of a six-month emergency response plan, UNDP is looking to put thousands of poor Haitians to work in labor-intensive jobs that include building dikes, cleaning clogged canals and revamping the overall infrastructure.

But weaning Haitians off foreign products in a country where almost all of the foodstuff is imported, is not easy.

''Our rice is better, but it doesn't have any value,'' said Loremaine Descieus, 44, as she described how Haitians would rather spend almost $4 on a Marmite or six pounds of U.S. long-grain rice (No. 5) than $5.26 on the same quantity of Shedla and Shella Artibonite rice, which is more natural and local.

''It's the big guy, destroying the little guy,'' she said.

Leveck Mondesir, 50, who owns a rice mill in the province of Drouet, said he hopes reforms don't end up like Préval's controversial agrarian land overhaul during his first presidential term (1996-2001) when the government handed over land to peasants and they in turn sold it for a profit.

''You have to give the opportunity to people who want to work,'' he said amid the buzz of his 35-year-old rice mill.

Clothère Presidieu, a rice farmer who also lives in Drouet, says help from the government would mean he could stop buying rice on the open market to resell, and he could grow enough to feed his 30 family members and make a living.

''The more rice the country can produce, the better it would be for us,'' he said, standing in his front yard where several sacks of harvested rice were drying as he prepared a batch for the mill.

''But the canals need to be cleaned, the price of fertilizer has to come down so planters like us can afford it and work,'' Presidieu said. ``There are people here who can't afford it at all, and end up losing their harvest because they attempted to plant without it.''

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