Haiti's poor driven to the edge

Nicole Colson reports on the devastating consequences of rising food prices in one of the world's poorest countries.

PLACIDE SIMONE had a horrifying plea to make to the New York Times reporter who visited her home in Haiti's Cité Soleil slum.

"Take one," the desperate 29-year-old mother said, cradling an infant in her arms and pointing to four thin toddlers, all of whom had gone without food that day. "You pick. Just feed them."

Simone is one of a growing number of Haiti's poor who have been pushed beyond endurance by price increases in staple foods.

The crisis isn't relegated to Haiti. It is being felt across the globe. Since 2002, according to the United Nations, global food prices have increased by 65 percent, with grain rising 42 percent and dairy products up 80 percent in 2007 alone. Wheat prices have gone up 130 percent since last year, and rice, a staple for many of the world's poor, has increased in price more than 140 percent since January--jumping 30 percent in a single day in late March.

For Haiti, which imports the majority of its food, including more than 80 percent of its rice, the price increases are particularly disastrous. More than 75 percent of the country's 9 million people live on less than $2 a day, and more than half of the population earns less than $1 a day.

According to the World Health Organization, even before this latest crisis, 2.4 million Haitians were unable to afford enough food to meet its recommended minimum daily intake of calories. In Cité Soleil alone, one in five children is chronically malnourished--a number that is expected to climb as basic staples become priced out of the reach of most residents.

The effects have been immediate and obvious. Reports suggest a growing number of Haitians have begun to rely on cakes made of an edible clay as a main food source, while a recent photo essay by the New York Times followed residents as they picked through a local garbage dump, searching for anything of value that could be sold and any scraps of food that could be salvaged.

Diadonna Pierre, who cares for 18 children in a single cinder block room in Cité Soleil, told the Times that she has had nothing to feed them recently. "Sometimes, someone brings me two cans of rice, because I am not working." The children ate two spoonfuls of rice each as their last meal before going without food entirely the following day.

Pierre's husband, Saint Louis Meriska, said, "They look at me and say, 'Papa, I'm hungry,' and I have to look away. It's humiliating, and it makes you angry."

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THAT ANGER recently boiled over onto Haiti's streets in food riots in early April.

The riots began April 3 in Les Cayes, the country's third-largest city, traditionally not known as a center of political unrest. The protests then spread to other cities: Aquin, Cavaillon, Petit-Goave, Gonaïves and, finally, the capital of Port-au-Prince on April 7.

For four days, angry residents took to the streets of Port-au-Prince, targeting banks and businesses, and distributing food wherever it was found.

UN "peacekeepers," who have occupied Haiti since the U.S. government helped engineer the ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, used rubber bullets and tear gas to attack crowds that tried to tear down the gates of the Haitian parliament and the National Palace--with President René Préval, a target of much of the rising anger, still inside. In all, at least five protesters and one UN soldier were killed.

The Haiti Information Project described one action on April 6 in which "over 5,000 protesters set up flaming barricades throughout the main downtown area of Les Cayes and paralyzed traffic for several hours, according to eyewitnesses. Demonstrators stopped two trucks loaded with rice and after the drivers fled the scene, began distributing it to the crowd. They also attacked the fence of the headquarters of United Nations forces in the area."

Préval was forced to make a statement about the crisis, but his initial comments seemed a calculated slap in the face to the Haitian poor--such as his suggestion that if Haitians could afford cell phones, they should be able to afford to feed their families. Préval also chided protesters for tarnishing the image of Haiti among the international business community.

Within days, Préval was forced to shift the blame elsewhere, declaring in an address, "We are now paying the price of a policy applied during the past 20 years"--an apparent reference to neoliberal policies that have forced privatization and "free market" solutions on Haiti.

Préval, who has supported such privatization measures, announced an influx of international aid money, price reductions by importers on sugar and salary reductions for some top officials. Meanwhile, Haitian lawmakers ousted Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, placing the blame on his shoulders for not having done enough to encourage food production in the country.

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THERE IS nothing "natural" about Haiti's food crisis, though natural causes played some role. A six-year-long drought has wiped out 98 percent of Australia's rice crop, for example; global cereal stocks are down to just eight to 12 weeks' supply; and grain supplies are at their lowest since the 1980s.

But overall, the current spike in prices for rice, wheat and other staple crops has man-made causes--for example, increases in commodity prices as investors flee the declining dollar.

Even more important are rising oil prices, caused by the U.S. war on Iraq. The record increase in oil prices has driven up the cost of nearly every aspect of agricultural production, from fertilizer production to transportation.

Then there is the boondoggle of increased production of ethanol, made from corn. The result is that land has been taken away from other crops while simultaneously driving up the price of corn--with the further effect of increasing the price of animal feed, leading to hikes in the price of meat, eggs and dairy products.

Neoliberal policies pushed by the U.S. government and the international institutions it dominates, such as the IMF and World Bank, played no small role in the disaster striking countries like Haiti. Haiti is today a net importer of food, but at one time, it was able to feed itself.

In a recent speech, World Bank President Robert Zoellick, formerly of the Bush administration, warned that 33 countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices. In countries where buying food requires half to three-quarters of a poor person's income, Zoellick said, "there is no margin for survival."

Yet the policies enforced by Zoellick and others helped plunge countries like Haiti into a quicksand of international debt, while mandating the destruction of social programs and the opening of domestic markets to international plunder.

As Raj Patel, a writer and activist who studies the global food system, commented in Britain's Guardian newspaper, "For anyone who understands the current food crisis, it is hard to listen to the head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, without gagging...[P]rices have fluctuated before. The reason we're seeing such misery as a result of this particular spike has everything to do with Zoellick and his friends.

"Before he replaced Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank, Zoellick was the U.S. trade representative, their man at the World Trade Organization....His mission was to accelerate two decades of trade liberalization in key strategic commodities for the United States, among them agriculture.

"Practically, this meant the removal of developing countries' ability to stockpile grain (food mountains interfere with the market), to create tariff barriers (ditto), and to support farmers (they ought to be able to compete on their own). This Zoellick did often, and enthusiastically.

"Without agricultural support policies, though, there's no buffer between the price shocks and the bellies of the poorest people on earth. No option to support sustainable smaller-scale farmers, because they've been driven off their land by cheap [European Union] and U.S. imports. No option to dip into grain reserves because they've been sold off to service debt. No way of increasing the income of the poorest, because social programs have been cut to the bone.

"The reason that today's price increases hurt the poor so much is that all protection from price shocks has been flayed away, by organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank."

Today, Haiti owes more than $48 million to the IMF and others. Fearing more unrest, Congress voted in April to add Haiti to the list of those poorest countries eligible for debt relief, allowing them to divert resources from loan repayment to health and education programs.

But such relief is only a drop in the bucket. As the Wall Street Journal reported, "The situation in Haiti underscored some of the problems afflicting the world's poorest countries. Haiti has enough food in the marketplace to feed its populace, but prices have increased beyond the means of many of the urban poor to pay for it."

UN official Jean Ziegler was harsher in his description of the growing global food crisis. Ziegler recently told the Austrian newspaper Kurier am Sonntag that the rise in global food prices is a form of "silent mass murder," and that commodities markets have brought "horror" to the world.

The typical assumption that hunger is only a matter of fate is "madness," said Ziegler. "Hunger has not been down to fate for a long time--just as Marx thought. It is rather that a murder is behind every victim. This is silent mass murder."

According to Ziegler, neoliberal policies of globalization are responsible for "monopolizing the riches of the earth"--and multinational corporations are to blame for a type of "structural violence."

"And we have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and horror," he said, adding that he believed starving people could rise up against their persecutors.

"It's just as possible as the French Revolution was," he said.