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HAITI: Food Crisis Sparks Anger and Despair

Nick Whalen

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Apr 16 2008 (IPS) - A green, red and yellow-striped umbrella is all that keeps Hernite Joseph from the searing sun as she takes apart a frozen chicken with a screwdriver and places the small pieces into neat piles stacked three high.

Protesters march through Port-au-Prince to demand the government lower the price of basic commodities. Credit: Nick Whalen/IPS

Protesters march through Port-au-Prince to demand the government lower the price of basic commodities. Credit: Nick Whalen/IPS

"A long time ago, when things were good, I&#39d go to work and had enough food to feed my two youngest kids," said Joseph, who sells chicken parts imported from the United States.

But recently, rising food prices have made it nearly impossible for Joseph to feed her children.

"My kids are like toothpicks," said Joseph, sitting at a cardboard-covered wooden table in La Saline market, one of the capital&#39s largest. "They&#39re not getting enough nourishment."

"Before, if you had a dollar twenty-five [cents], you could buy vegetables, some rice, 10 cents of charcoal and a little cooking oil," she said. "Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and it&#39s not good rice at all. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With a dollar twenty-five, you can&#39t even make a plate of rice for one child."

Food prices are rising around the world, but Haiti has been especially hard hit. The hemisphere&#39s poorest country imports most of the food it consumes, the result of free market policies that have undermined national production.

On Saturday, President Rene Preval promised to reduce the price of rice and the Haitian Senate voted to fire Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis for his failure to curb soaring food costs.

All this comes after 10 days of protests over the high cost of living which left at least three Haitians dead. The unrest began in Okay, the third largest city in Haiti, and spread rapidly throughout the country.

Under Preval&#39s plan, imported rice will be subsidised by the Haitian government with money given by the international community and the private sector. Currently, importers sell a 110-pound bag of rice for 51 dollars.

The government will cut 5.0 dollars off every bag and the three major rice importers will take 3.0 dollars off their profits for each bag. With the new subsidy, the price of a 110-pound bag of rice should cost 43 dollars – a drop in price of nearly 16 percent.

However, the agreement between the government and importers will last only one month and there is no guarantee that the price of the subsidised rice will actually be 16 percent lower once it hits the marketplace.

The plan marks a reversal for Preval, who had previously refused to subsidise imported rice to avoid undercutting local producers.

"Cheap imported rice destroyed [nationally grown] rice," he said. "Today, imported rice has become expensive and our national production is in ruins and there is even more misery."

An advisor to the president said Haitian-grown rice could not be easily subsidised because of the large number of producers and distributors.

Preval promised, however, to cut the price of fertiliser in half with the help of the Venezuelan government. A 100-pound bag of fertiliser costs nearly 43 dollars, forcing poor farmers to choose between fertiliser or sending their children to school.

The government is hoping to stock up on fertiliser now, ahead of the planting season in June and July.

Thirty years ago, Haiti produced nearly all the rice it consumed. But in the late 1980s, cheap imported U.S. rice inundated the country after a military junta began liberalising the economy with support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The first batches of imported rice were escorted by armed convoys in the Artibonite valley – Haiti&#39s main rice-producing region. Rice farmers regarded the imported U.S. rice as a threat to their production and livelihoods.

As it turned out, their concerns were justified. In 1994, an IMF-sponsored plan cut tariffs on imported rice from 35 percent to 3 percent, the lowest in the region. In one year, the number of rice imports doubled.

While the U.S. government subsidises its own rice farmers, its Haitian counterpart was prohibited from doing so under the terms of their agreement with the IMF. Over the last 20 years, rice production in Haiti has been cut in half, while imports now dominate the market.

In La Saline, the stench of fish and chicken permeates the air as Hernite Joseph continues to tear at the heap of frozen chicken before her.

For her and her three children, the future is up in the air and if the cost of living continues to rise, Henrite only sees one outcome: "I will die."

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