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Haitian Farmers: Growing Strength to Grow Food

What would it take for Haitians to feed their nation? Photo by Ben Depp, www.bendepp.com

Rony Charles, a rice grower and member of the Agricultural Producer Cooperative of Verrettes, said, “Instead of foreigners sending us food, they should give us the chance to do our own agriculture so it can survive.”

Giving domestic agriculture the chance to survive would address four critical needs:

  • Creating employment for the majority, estimated at 60% to 80% of the population;[1]
  • Allowing rural people to stay on their land. This is both their right as well as a way to keep Port-au-Prince from becoming even more perilously overcrowded;
  • Addressing an ongoing food crisis. Today, even with imports, more than 2.4 million people out of a population of 9 million are estimated to be food-insecure. Acute malnutrition among children under the age 5 is 9%, and chronic under-nutrition for that age group is 24%.[2] Peasant groups are convinced that, with the necessary investment, Haiti could produce at least 80% of its food consumption needs; and
  • Promoting a post-earthquake redevelopment plan that serves the needs of the majority, unlike the one currently promoted by the U.S. and U.N. which is based on the growth of sweatshops. (See “Poverty-Wage Assembly Plants as Development Strategy in Haiti”.)

To attain these goals, Haitian groups of small farmers (or peasants, as they call themselves) are challenging a decades-long pattern of conflict and competition, a trend which the Duvalier dictators actively fostered in order to sustain their fierce control. Groups are uniting into coalitions and beginning to work together, thereby building political might to shore up domestic agriculture. They are advancing their agenda collectively through negotiations with the Ministry of Agriculture, national pressure, international policy advocacy, and creation of common cause with other farmer movements and allies elsewhere.

These farmers, like their counterparts the world over, are focused principally on building food sovereignty. They are on the frontlines of a clash between two development models: food sovereignty and neoliberalism.[3]

Food sovereignty is the right of a people to define their own food and agricultural systems, premised on growing domestically for domestic consumption. It is based on other social and economic rights, too: the right to food, the right of rural peoples to produce, and the right to land.

Food sovereignty promotes small-scale agriculture, government management of food imports, protection of native seeds, and large-scale redistribution of land with protections of land tenure for small farmers. It calls for the democratic participation of the population in shaping trade policies and for development programs which protect domestic production, especially by small growers.

The opposing model, neoliberalism, is the one governing farming in Haiti and much of the world. An ideology as well as a set of free-market policies and programs, neoliberalism opposes a significant role of government or community in planning, investing in, or intervening into markets in ways which could protect and promote national development. Neoliberalism gives primacy to corporate control over domestic production and the environment. Key players here include the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, governments of industrialized countries, large landholders, and corporations.

The model is based on global trade rules which allow rich countries to make profits off of Haiti and other low-income countries in two ways. First is as a source of cheap, raw goods for the so-called First World, which are extracted or produced by intensive exploitation of labor, land, and other resources. Haiti used to fill this role, historically exporting hardwoods and more recently – until the 1980s - foodstuffs, when the agricultural sector no longer had the capacity to do so.

Low-income countries’ second role is as a market for corporate goods from high-income countries. The trade policies of wealthy nations and the conditions on loans by international financial institutions pressure low-income countries to lower import tariffs, though high-income countries’ own production remains protected by subsidies. In Haiti, conditions on two loans from the IMF, in 1986 and 1995, forced the government to reduce tariffs on food imports to as low as 3% from former levels of up to 150%.[4] This made it suddenly cheaper to buy food from U.S. agribusiness than from the farmer the next field over, thus effectively putting out of business the farmer in that next field.

Until the early 1980s, Haiti was largely self-sufficient in food, but now domestic agriculture meets only 43% of Haitians’ food consumption needs.[5] This has led to the further impoverishment of the small farmer sector; those who still try to survive through growing do so in grinding destitution. Another option has been to flee to the cities, and for more than three decades peasants have been arriving in droves for Port-au-Prince, where they have found jobs in the assembly sector or the informal sector if they were lucky, or have remained unemployed if they weren’t. This led to another impact of so-called free trade policies: the dense population in Port-au-Prince of rural emigrants and others, virtually all of them living in shoddy housing on terrain often unsuitable for dwellings, contributed greatly to the high death toll (estimated at 250,000 to 300,000) from the January 12 earthquake.

Attaining food sovereignty in Haiti would necessitate a governmental commitment to invest significantly in agriculture. Farmers need support for tools, seeds, credit, irrigation and water storage systems, and assistance from agronomists. Food sovereignty must involve land reform, since peasants currently don’t have the land they need to grow. It would mean staunching the flow of dumped U.S. commodities (today mainly handed out in ‘food for work’ programs, usually in crony systems) which, more than ever since the earthquake, has meant that Haitian farmers either have to sell their food for a pittance or cannot sell it at all. Food sovereignty would require raising tariffs on food imports to protect national production.

Food sovereignty would also involve turning around Haiti’s ecological crisis, since its effects - topsoil erosion, deforestation, destruction of watersheds, floods, and droughts - all impede agricultural production. Some Haitian farmer-activists are promoting a set of programs to address this crisis, with their own programs of reforestation, integrated water management, and creation of non-charcoal energy sources. But the farmers say they cannot reverse the environmental decline on their own, and ask the government to commit to national programs and to enforce ecological protection laws that are already on the books.

Food sovereignty in Haiti would require, furthermore, passing a law against genetically modified [GMO] seeds and limiting multinational corporate involvement in Haiti’s seeds, which Haitian farmers call “the patrimony of humanity.” The need has been underscored this year by new imports of seeds from Pioneer and Monsanto. Some of them, such as Monsanto’s calypso tomato seeds, are treated with deadly poisons which the EPA banned for home use in the U.S.[6] While Monsanto, for one, is donating its seeds this year, one suspects that that largesse will quickly end and that farmers will be forced to buy them in subsequent years. Meanwhile, agriculture becomes dependent on foreign corporations for the very foundation of agriculture. (For more, please see “Haitian Farmers Commit to Burning Monsanto Seeds.”)

Strengthening the agricultural sector is viable because of the size, strength, and growing unity of the peasant movement, and because of the international attention and support of progressive allies. What is needed now is the political will of the Haitian government, the U.N., and foreign governments.

Below is a listing of some of the coalitions, both Haitian and foreign, which are building the movement. Doudou Pierre of the National Network for Food Sovereignty and Security said, “All these networks basically have the same agendas. It’s for food sovereignty and against neoliberal agricultural policies.”

Four Focused Eyes (Kat Zye Kontre) unites the four largest and strongest peasant organizations. The name comes from an expression pertaining to cheating in Haitian card games: “Four focused eyes, an end to lies,” and refers to the long-term distrust between some of these organizations. They include the country’s two national peasant groups - Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, or Heads Together Small Producers of Haiti, and the National Peasant Movement of the Papay Congress (MPNKP) - plus the two largest regional organizations - the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP by its Creole acronym) and the Regional Coordination of the Organizations of the South-East (KROS). For the first time, these groups are overcoming old division [s] to work in unity. They are pushing the state for alternative, pro-peasant policies through mobilization, especially around land reform.

National Network for Food Sovereignty and Security (RENHASSA by its Creole acronym) is a coalition of 54 organizations from different sectors and regions. Formed in 2006, RENHASSA’s mission is to advocate for national policies which would allow Haiti’s self-sufficiency in national food production, for policies against foreign food aid and dumping which undermine that self-sufficiency, and for land reform. See “So Everyone Can Eat, Produce It here: Food Sovereignty and Land Reform in Haiti (Part I)”.

National Coordinating Committee of Peasant Women (KONAFAP). “You can’t speak of food sovereignty without women’s participation,” said one farmer in the rural North of Haiti. KONAFAP was formed two years ago by women from the 54 member organizations of the National Network for Food Sovereignty and Security (RENHASSA). Still in a building stage, most of its members currently hail from the Peasant Movement of Papay and the National Peasant Movement of the Papay Congress. KONAFAP promotes political fights against hunger and against neoliberal agricultural policies, and organizes for the strength and rights of peasant women. For more information, see “Thinking about Ourselves and Our Future: Rural Women Organize.

Hand-in-Hand Foundation (FONDAMA by its Creole acronym) brings together approximately 400,000 members in eleven organizations that together cover most parts of the country. FONDAMA’s mission is food sovereignty and environmental protection. FONDAMA is holding an ongoing series of post-earthquake meetings to construct and advocate for a national agricultural program.

Vía Campesina (Peasants’ Way) is the network of small farmers, peasant farmers, landless people, indigenous people, and rural women, with member organizations around the world. One of Vía’s emphases is food sovereignty, which it advancews through coordinating and promoting international-level activities and through helping member countries like Haiti lead domestic fights. Three of Haiti’s peasant organizations – Tèt Kole, the National Peasant Movement of the Papay Congress, and the Peasant Movement of Papay– are members, while the Regional Coordination of the Organizations of the South-East (KROS) is applying for membership. A Haitian representative has long had a seat on Vía’s International Coordinating Committee.

Silion Pierre, a national coordinator with Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, Heads Together Small Producers of Haiti, said, “Our idea is to reinforce our strength and capacity to mobilize by bringing together all progressive forces, Haitian and foreign, to make Haiti into another nation where people can live with security and food.”

Other Worlds is very grateful to our friends who have donated their beautiful photographs from Haiti: Ben Depp as well as Roberto (Bear) Guerra, Julie Dermansky, and Salena Tramel.

[1] The U.N. in 2006 estimated 60%, while peasant organizations commonly use the figure of 80%.

[2] World Food Programme, 2010, http://www.wfp.org/countries/haiti.

[3] Posited by Via Campesina, as explained in “Food Sovereignty” flyer, 2002, discussed in Peter Rosset, Agrarian Reform and Food Sovereignty: Alternative Model for the Rural World, Center for the Study of Rural Change in Mexico, Feb. 2006, p. 7.

[4] Oxfam International, Kicking Down the Door: How Upcoming WTO Talks Threaten Farmers in Poor Countries, April 2005, p. 26.

[5] World Bank, 2008.

[6] Extension Toxicology Network, Pesticide Information Project of the Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis, http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/pyrethrins-ziram/thiram-ex...

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

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