Beverly Bell and Tory Field: Miami Rice

I don’t normally post other folks’ articles but this is a particularly important piece on the US involvement in the Haitian rice racket, written by one of the most vital and urgent voices from Haiti, Beverly Bell. More below the fold.

Miami Rice
By Beverly Bell and Tory Field

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.

“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.

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%.[1] Despite that, food imports constitute upwards of 50% of what Haitians consume.[2] 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%, and chronic undernutrition for that age group is 24%.[3]

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%, 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%.[4]

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.[5] 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%, with 95% of the imports coming from the U.S.[6] The USA Rice Federation claims on its website that 90% of the rice currently eaten in Haiti is from the U.S.[7]

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.[8] 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 (HEAR) Act – 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 40-50% of all rice eaten in Haiti.[9] 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.[10]

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% of its funding from USAID and works in more than 75 countries.[11] 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.[12]

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.”[13]

Meanwhile, Haitian peasant groups have declared this donation an affront to their seed sovereignty, which they refer to as “the patrimony of humanity.”[14] Among other problems, they point to the Calypso tomato seeds being treated with Thiram[15], a pesticide additive so toxic that the EPA has banned its use for home gardeners in the U.S.[16] 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.[17] 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.”[18] 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: US$13.27 a sack versus US$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% (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%.

[2] A recent Associated Press article cited a 2005 government needs assessment which put the figure at 51% (Jonathan Katz, “With cheap imports, Haiti can’t feed itself,” Associated Press, March 20, 2010).

[3] World Food Program, 2010, http://www.wfp.org/countries/haiti

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

[5] Environmental Working Group Farm Subsidy Database, http://farm.ewg.org

[6] Oxfam International, Op. Cit., p. 26.

[7] USA Rice Federation, “USA Rice Efforts Result in Rice Food-Aid for Haiti,” January 20, 2010. http://www.usarice.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=957:…

[8] Ibid.

[9] 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.

[10] USA Rice Federation, Op. Cit.

[11] Center for Public Integrity, http://projects.publicintegrity.org/wow/bio.aspx?act=pro&ddlc=8

[12] Ibid.

[13] Email from Elizabeth Vancil, Op. Cit.

[14] 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.

[15] 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.

[16] 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…

[17] Beverly Bell, “Groups Around the U.S. Join Haitian Farmers in Protesting ‘Donation’ of Monsanto Seeds,” June 4, 2010, http://www.otherworldsarepossible.org/another-haiti-possible/groups-arou…

[18] From a statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10th, 2010. Jonathan M. Katz, “With cheap food imports, Haiti can’t feed itself,” Associated Press, March 20, 2010.

5 Replies to “Beverly Bell and Tory Field: Miami Rice”

  1. I think Amartya Sen said that money is a more useful form of aid than (dumped) food. That has its own problems that need to be minimized, but USAID and other agencies could probably reduce a lot of their negative impacts by targeted distributions of cash to the poor.

  2. Yes, business as usual. Food for sale like ipods, refrigerators and tee vees. Basic human rights totally ignored. The world financial criminal cartel inches a little bit closer to having total control over the bodies, minds and souls of human beings all over the entire planet. Few object. Those that do have their price.

    Expert Social Engineers will smooth out the corners and make it not only acceptable but clearly demonstrate the excitement and thrill which can come from the titillating excitement of possible unexpected aquisitions which emerge free of charge from practicing the science of Good Luck.

  3. I don’t know why President Obama who should understand the plight of third world farmers continues to propagate the same USAID policies of the Bush and previous administrations. I don’t think the United States, World Bank or IMF have any moral standing if they say they are helping Global South farmers. The only organizations they support are Western corporate interests along with their phony intellectual property “rights”.

    It seems like peasant farmers in Haiti and elsewhere will have to learn to motivate themselves to farm without the financial support of getting a fair price for their produce. Maybe some system of collective independent farming and a strong opposition stand to remain independent from Western aid (debt) might be some strategy.

    As the statistics show, there are many undernourished people in Haiti and cheaper food may help feed them. But the idea that US aid and charity in any way helps Haiti become food sovereign needs to be obliterated. US aid and charity along with it’s NGO’s are only motivated by self-interest foremost. And US corporate contractors who receive American aid money are only motivated by Ayn Rand-style pure selfishness and greed.

    There is nothing nice or sweet or helpful about American, World Bank and IMF policies. Peasant farmers have every reason to protest their every move. However I wish they have some more solidarity from the middle class and aristocracy in their own countries who turn a blind eye to the food sovereignty subversion by unfairly subsidized agriculture of Western nations, organizations and corporations. Lack of unity in the Global South has often resulted in injustice of the poorest in those countries.

    Pandurang Shastri Athavale said the following in his speech for the Templeton award (he repeats a point made by Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic that “‘Justice is in the interest of the stronger and everyone knows it”):

    “The State is another agency devised for the betterment for humankind to regulate human affairs, to bring about harmony and accord between various sections of society. It has tried to ensure welfare of all through rules and law. This shortcut to human welfare has not been able to transform man or provide a moral basis of government. Its amoral nature, its limited scope and its tendency to limit human creativity has not and cannot serve the deeper spiritual needs of humanity. The State has neither been able to eradicate inequalities nor establish a basis of harmonious relationship within the state and among the states.

    Rules are necessary to regulate life, but they are like fences or limits within which humankind has to operate. Transgression is neither permitted nor tolerated. It invites punishment. It is particularly harsh on the weak. It was Plato who said in the Republic: ‘Justice is in the interest of the stronger and everyone knows it.’ This is the universal nature of state laws, irrespective of the color of the regime: red, white or green.”

  4. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus makes the point that “injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice” which is why justice is in the interest of the stronger. I think Raj Patel could write a whole book on this philosophical statement.

    The notion that the United States, World Bank and IMF and their neoliberal economic policies bolster justice in the world is blatantly false. Instead they give credence to the idea that “might is right.” The perception that individuals, small businesses and entire nations enjoy “freedom” is tightly held in check by overwhelming debt which is used to manipulate their thinking that justice prevails in the world.

    The middle class and the intellectual class living in the Global South and also in the West will live as puppets of neoliberal corporate policies and Western capitalism as long as they entertain the idea that these interests act with consideration to and in promotion of justice in the world. Because of this ignorance by the middle class and intellectual class, the poor and weak in the Global South will suffer the most and those in countries such as the United States will have to endure the most.

    Unfortunately such philosophical understanding and thinking is very much lacking in the West. It is thinking that becomes more poignant when viewed from the perspective of the poor living in the Global South.

    Western media which is controlled by neoliberal financiers (Rupert Murdoch is one such extreme example) will never report evidence of injustice carried out on a sufficiently large scale which occurs even here in the United States where government regulatory officials come from corporate ranks and our politicians join corporate lobbyist ranks after they lose office. The media will under-report the fact that political success in our weakly participatory democracy hinges largely on corporate money financing (which has recently become more unregulated).

    It is ironic that Socrates said “Nothing is to be preferred before justice” before he suffered his own unjust death at the hands of his own government.

    Haiti is one example of economic injustice being masked as aid and charity by US interests. There is a documentary on the same topic about Jamaica called “Life and Debt” which is worth seeing.

  5. This blog entry titled “Haiti and the Aid Racket” is about how NGOs are profiting off a grave situation there. http://www.afaceaface.org/blog/?p=1437

    It describes how corporations and government bureaucracies such as USAID provide majority of funding for NGOs which serve as a form of “soft imperialism” in the same way that missionary religious institutions played in the earlier history of empire. NGOs have stepped into the social support role in many third world countries after social support that used to be provided by state government was dismantled by neoliberal policies. NGOs have also been effective on spreading Western propaganda by co-opting local leadership by offering better salaries to them than available elsewhere so that emerging leaders in these countries become purchasable commodities of the West. The broad impact of NGOs “has been to bureaucratize and de-radicalize urban social movements” as well as take over the social space traditionally occupied by the Left.

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