Saturday, January 20, 2007

Renew the Rice Fields

I have been receiving a number of comments and questions in regards to my Beri-beri story in HAITI: Mysterious Prison Ailment Traced to U.S. Rice
By Jeb Sprague and Eunida Alexandra*
. The E-mails have topically discussed everything from the health problems caused by Beri-beri to disgust over the U.S. and multinational corporations’ role in blocking cheap generic drugs from wide-scale consumption to impoverished populations while forcing down tariffs. The study by Griffin and Dr. Morgan has numerous implications: for the prisoners, for U.S. rice/trade policies, and for Haiti. It exposes on a local level the murky underbelly of corporate globalization with deadly results for the most vulnerable.

One reader wrote that Beri-beri

is merely malnutrition at the metabolic level. It was once rampant in prisons with deplorable conditions. Give them whole brown rice and they will likely recover. ALL white rice is essentially poison. It is fortified in processing where they add vitamins. Why not just eat brown rice?

Chomsky's chapter "The Tragedy of Haiti" in Year 501: The Conquest Continues (1993) does an excellent job at discussing how the World Bank and other IFIs pressured Haiti to allow the cheap importation of rice in the early 1980's. This continued throughout that decade and with the resumption of post-de facto democracy in 1994, the US and IFIs once again pressured the lowering of tariffs but this time through the Paris Accords negotiated with a democratically elected government (although still dependent). The Accords also pressured privatization that Aristide opposed once he was returned. The founding of the Fanmi Lavalas (FL) grouping, if you read the few press reports from late 1996 that discuss it (available on LEXUS), was based on opposition to the foreign/elite pressured privatization. This made FL enemy number one for national and transnational elites operating in Haiti. Preval and the neo-liberal OPL privatized two civil enterprises but when OPL lost out in the 1997 elections to FL this ended the move towards privatizations.

In regards to Beri-beri. It has been researched in prison studies for many years now. A study that took place in the Dutch East Indies one hundred and ten years ago has fascinating similarities with the Griffin/Morgan study. See
Vandenbroucke JP. Adolphe Vorderman's 1897 study of beriberi among prison inmates in the Dutch East Indies: an exemplar of scrupulous efforts to avoid bias
. Vorderman went personally to the food supply of prisons and collected samples, similar to Morgan/Griffin. The Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, was also a colonial outpost and throughout the history of Indonesia its people have struggled under the rigors of foreign and elite imposed systems.

But today Indonesia is one of the world's leading rice producers, "with paddy production in 2003 of more than 50 million tones and a cultivated area of more than 11.5 million ha" But in Haiti rice has grown in cost and farmers have been pushed out of business. National elites have gained a monopoly on the disbursement of rice imports. When the Aristide government distributed cheap imported rice to the most impoverished (which was only a temporary solution for starvation), the same national elites who profited from the trade imbalance saw the government as a threat (some financed X-FAdH rebels. Aristide's effort to provide affordable rice while it was a humanitarian gesture could not solve the problem. But Haitian elites denounced the program because it cut into their profits of selling highly priced foreign imported rice to the masses. We can be sure from that experience, that if rice tariffs were raised to renew Haitian domestic rice productivity this would insure a deadly response from elites who profit from the trade imbalance. So if small steps are attacked before they can become big steps, what is the solution?

A recent article False H.O.P.E. For Haiti, by Tom Ricter, criticizes the new HOPE legislation meant to promote more garment industry jobs for Haiti. It also brings up the issue of the rural economy, a discussion that is often lacking and underreported. Ricter writes:

The single greatest generator of unemployment in Haiti over the past twenty years has been the destruction of the rural economy. The loss of economic opportunity in the countryside has translated into a wholly unsustainable urban migration. Urban communities in Port-au-Prince, Gonaives, Port de Paix and elsewhere are straining unsuccessfully to absorb dislocated peasants and their families into the blossoming slums, that lack the housing, water, schools and jobs the migrants need...Another approach a new HOPE could take would be to shift funds for development away from project based grants and loans, delivered primarily through the non-governmental sector, to direct support for government ministries in Haiti.

He argues for an alternative H.O.P.E., one that would promote a rural economy and reinvestment in a public workforce (health, literacy, etc)- both which would work to build a sustainable economy. He argues the low tariffs encourage investment but in a vacuum where a country like Haiti serves as basically a quick stop over. Its schools run by foreign donations and NGOs, its government sector gutted, and its rural economy destroyed.

Peasant leaders in Haiti, such as Bolivar Romulus and Moise Jean-Charles, organized under the democratically elected Haitian governments to promote pro-agricultural policies. Both were targeted by the ex-military opposition for death and persecution following the events of February 2004. Others, such as Chavannes Jean Baptiste and his political party MPP, were essentially co-opted into the foreign financed plan for Haiti. In our new publication HaitiAnalysis (with writers in Haiti, Canada, and the US) we will make a real effort to cover organizing for expanded rice productivity over cheap US rice imports. Could a domestic based rice economy be the future for Haiti's rebound? How could it function? The Preval government’s national road construction plan is one promising sign, which could drastically lower transportation costs for country rice getting to urban markets.