Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hungry for Change in Haiti: The Aftermath of the Food Rebellions and Some Solutions

Hungry for change in Haiti

Amid riots and political upheaval, Haiti needs the right kind of relief

By Kathie Klarreich
Christian Science Monitor
From the April 22, 2008 edition

Miami - This month's riots and a change in Haiti's government aren't extraordinary news items; upheavals in this Caribbean island are as frequent as seasonal changes.

What is significant is that the democratic process to remove the prime minister by the legislative body defied a tradition of violent overthrows and military interventions. And it worked.

President René Préval, who himself overcame maneuvering by opponents before taking office in 2006, must now choose a new government. It won't be easy. There is no majority in the bicameral parliament.

Various sectors hope to regain some of the power they lost in recent years, including those loyal to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The charismatic but controversial leader was forced into exile in 2004, two years shy of completing his five-year term.

In addition, industrialists, who profited from Haiti's dysfunction, hope to influence the direction of the new administration, as do former Army officers who lost their status when the military was dismantled in 1995.

Choosing a prime minister who will satisfy various, if not competing agendas, is a formidable challenge. As are rising food and fuel costs. Lavi che, the Haitian expression for the high cost of living, was the battle cry in this month's demonstrations that degenerated into rampant lootings and at least six deaths, including that of a United Nations peacekeeper.

Today, Haitians jest that Clorox is the best medicine for their hunger. If that doesn't work, they recommend battery acid because it kills more than the pain.

Increasing food prices are not unique to Haiti – global food reserves are at their lowest in nearly four decades and continue to fall. The World Food Program sent out an extraordinary appeal to donors for an additional $500 million in March.

Food cost inflation in the US is the highest in 17 years. The World Bank warned that civil disturbances may be triggered in 33 countries. To circumvent this, governments from Central America to Indonesia are curbing exports and lifting import duties on staples.

Préval quelled the worst of Haiti's protests by, among other steps, cutting the cost of rice, which has doubled in recent months to $70 for a 110-lb. bag. The World Bank has promised Haiti $10 million in emergency aid; Venezuela plans to send chicken, mortadella, milk, and lentils.

With the vast majority of Haiti's 8.5 million trying to survive on just $2 a day, eking out even an extra penny is as difficult as the government's challenge of providing electricity – or potable water, inaccessible to 75 percent of the population. It is the poorest country in the hemisphere.

It wasn't always this way. Haiti used to be the lushest island in the region; rice and coffee were major exports. But political turmoil, mismanagement, lack of planning, deforestation, and natural disasters have taken their toll. Today, less than 2 percent of the country is forested.

The international community has a stake in Haiti because 99 percent of Haiti's budget comes from abroad. The US cares because Haiti is just 500 miles from Florida. When things turn sour there, it becomes a domestic problem here.

There are things that we could, and should, do differently. For immediate relief, Washington should grant temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitians living in the United States. TPS is awarded to undocumented immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict and environmental disasters: it requires nothing more than the president's signature.

Citizens from seven countries currently profit from TPS, but Haitians have never benefited from this status. This is ironic, given that this month the US banned government officials from traveling to Haiti and advised the 19,000 American citizens living there to leave.

Haiti has 2,500 miles of roads, only a quarter of which are paved. Rather than pay consultants a daily stipend that exceeds a Haitian's yearly income, send technicians to tarmac roads that will facilitate the distribution of locally grown food. Put in an irrigation system that will diminish damage from seasonal flooding. Stock cargo containers with fertilizers and seeds, not used clothing. Teach residents desperate for work how to set up purification systems for garbage that can be landscaped rather than dumped into the surrounding waters.

Encourage the Haitian diaspora to return – 80 percent of college-educated Haitians live abroad. Put their expertise to use. Similarly, invite the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who mobilized poor African women to plant more than 30 million trees, to work with Haiti's agricultural ministry. Reforestation is as much about understanding the culture as it is planting.

You can't pick the fruit if you don't start with the root, a Haitian proverb says. It's time to get Haiti on its feet. If not, the new government will have no better chance of succeeding than the one it just replaced.

-Kathie Klarreich, author of "Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou, and Civil Strife in Haiti," has covered Haiti as a journalist for more than 20 years.

1 comment:

Pan-African News Wire said...

Protests over high food prices go global

By Kathy Durkin
Workers World Newspaper

Published Apr 20, 2008 11:41 PM

People are rising up in much of the world to vehemently protest rising food prices.

Furious at seeing their children go hungry, and enraged at the inequities of it all, working and poor people all over the globe are militantly protesting. In Mexico, Haiti, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Uzbekistan, the Philippines and Indonesia—as well as in several African nations, including Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia—anger is boiling over at the exorbitant prices of basic foods.

Rice, a staple for nearly half the world’s peoples, costs twice what it did at the start of the year. Corn and wheat costs are sky-high.

The World Bank and capitalist governments are worried that growing mass protests against rising food prices will grow into rebellions and threaten the stability of their profit system.

The World Bank has reported that worldwide food prices grew by 83 percent over the last three years. Its president, Robert Zoellick, warned that 33 nations are at risk of social unrest due to rising food prices.

When 10,000 Bangladeshi textile workers marched in Dhaka on April 12 for higher wages to pay for increased food prices, they were attacked by police. Dozens were hurt. These workers, along with the rest of the population, are outraged at the 30 percent hike in the price of rice over the last year in a country one-half of whose 150 million people live on under $1 a day.

In Pakistan and Thailand, soldiers were dispatched to fields and warehouses to prevent food seizures by the many who are hungry. (Agence France-Presse, April 13)

In countries across the globe where imperialism has caused enormous income inequality, the majority spend most of their income on food. Nigerians, for example, spend 73 percent of their earnings on food; Indonesians spend half.

Soaring food prices have put millions of people at risk of starvation.

Many factors but one main cause

What has fueled these high costs?

Modern food production relies on petroleum. It is used for fertilizers, farm equipment and transportation.

War is also a factor impacting on food prices. Militaries use a lot of oil, whose price has climbed to $100 a barrel since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began.

In Haiti and Egypt, food is on sale, but the prices are out of reach for the masses. In other countries, such as the Philippines, food shortages are partially due to less domestic food cultivation.

Restricted food exports in some countries and lower global food production and inventories increase demand, which also drives prices high. Farmers who grew rice and other food staples are switching to more profitable cash crops. Another trend is to sell off agricultural land for other money-making uses.

Global warming and climate change, as a result of imperialist plunder of the earth’s resources, have caused damage to food cultivation.

Then there’s the enormous impact of corporate farms converting cropland from food production to growing raw materials, mostly corn, for ethanol production. These biofuels are in great demand and highly profitable, but they take arable land away from food production and drive up food prices. It means there’s less corn to feed people.

Cultivation zeroes in where the profits are greatest, a given in capitalist economies even though food is vitally needed worldwide. Agribusiness is even cutting down trees in rainforests, causing more deforestation, in the rush to make money.

As regards the environment, Eric Holt-Gimenez, director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, explains that biofuel production, instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adds even more “from deforestation, burning, peat drainage, cultivation and soil-carbon losses.” (International Herald Tribune, July 10, 2007)

Native food production is even further harmed by globalized biofuel farming as Indigenous farmers are pushed out, along with their crops.

Biofuel cultivation is big business. Highly industrialized countries are demanding ethanol. The European Union is exempting biofuel from some gas taxes.

Holt-Gimenez said of the concentration of wealth and market power in the biofuels industry, “Venture capital investment in biofuels grew by 800 percent in the last three years.”

Agribusiness giants Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill control most of the U.S. ethanol production and are its biggest profiteers. The U.S. government gives them billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies, tax credits and much more.

Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, says, “One of the consequences of this enormous shift of grain [to biofuels] is that hunger and malnutrition, which were supposed to be declining during this period, haven’t.” Predictions are there will be 1.2 billion hungry people by 2025. (Associated Press, Jan. 29)

Right now, nearly one billion people are hungry worldwide. Every day 24,000 children die from hunger and malnutrition.

The United Nations says it would cost $195 billion annually to end world hunger and related diseases. This is less than what the U.S. spends each year on the Iraq war.

But there is no long-term solution for world hunger as long as the almighty dollar reigns over humanity’s needs. The capitalist market and its drive for profits will always take precedence, no matter what is needed.

Productive forces worldwide can potentially produce food for all. But it takes a planned socialist economy based on human need rather than the profit motive.

The goal of capitalist production is to sell food for profit, even when people are starving. Food is a commodity like everything else. High prices and large warehouses of grain can exist side by side with starvation when people are too poor to buy food.

This is one more reason why socialism is superior to capitalism, especially for the masses of people worldwide.

Socialist centralized planning of production for what people need and equitable global distribution of food to all who need it are vital to solve this growing catastrophe.