By Nazaire St. Fort and Jeb Sprague*
Stanley Belizaire (holding microphone) says that Haiti's agronomy students will keep track of the promises made by the agriculture ministry.
Credit:Nazaire St. Fort/IPS
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Mar 4, 2008 (IPS) - Student activists in Haiti are calling for an overhaul of the nation's agriculture policies, which they say have resulted in Haiti importing more than half of its food while local farmers are mired in poverty.
A petition recently submitted to the René Préval government by students of the Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine (FAMV) department at Haiti's State University calls for a programme spanning the country's 10 departments to increase technical and expert assistance, give subsidies to the agriculture and fishing sector, promote egg and chicken-farming projects to ease reliance on Dominican imports, a nationwide campaign to provide agricultural credits to peasants and an incremental raising of tariffs on foreign agricultural products to benefit Haitian farmers.
Other points of the petition deal with strengthening environmental protection, improving access to social services and higher education for agronomy students, and supporting them to work in the field so that Haiti can develop its own well of local expertise. Of the 420,000 tonnes of rice Haitians consume yearly, 340,000 tonnes are imported. Of the 31 million eggs the Haitian population eats monthly, 30 million are imported from the Dominican Republic. About 80 percent of farmers earn less than 135 dollars a year.
"We understand that it is not just a single person" who has caused these problems, Stanley Belizaire, a fifth-year FAMV student, told IPS. He said that people must "get together to change or improve the agricultural system and give a new orientation to this country."
Before 1950, Haiti produced more than 80 percent of its own food and exported coffee, cocoa, meat and sugar. Since then, political instability, among other factors, has made the development of Haitian agriculture a low priority.
Dictatorships supported by Haiti's small elite have been preoccupied with plunder and repression, while popular governments have often been preoccupied with survival, and fending off coups d'etat.
By the 1980s and 1990s, a huge amount of international pressure had been placed on Haiti to reduce its tariffs and open most of its markets to the world. This process has strengthened a demographic shift in which poor rural populations, out of work, have moved to urban slums, often working as street vendors. To reenergise Haiti's rural economy, many analysts believe the government itself must intervene in order to create the space for jobs.
In a recent interview with a Canadian newspaper, the well-known Haitian political activist Patrick Elie explained the difficulties that Haiti faces in building national production.
"Roads in Haiti are difficult to maintain because of our limited means, but also because of the topography of the country: mountains, running water because of deforestation, and so forth," he said.
"More importantly, the strength of the mobilisation we had when [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide was elected in 1990 has been broken twice. During Préval's first presidency, there was more interference. We have had no continuity. You don't build infrastructure in two days, not even over one mandate. It requires a national plan that holds over a quarter or half a century. If you get clobbered every time you move forward, then you're constantly wasting money. Nothing ever gets finished."
Haiti's forced reliance on neo-liberal policies makes change all the more difficult. According to one current government official, more than 800 NGOs work parallel with the agriculture ministry, but most define their own priorities. With many in the private sector preferring to import foods rather than invest in local agriculture, if change is to occur, the government will need to develop the means and plans for the incubation of a revitalised agricultural economy.
With a drop in violence and the possibility for increased foreign investment with the implementation of a textile-oriented trade act with the United States, known as HOPE, the government could find some room to maneuvre in rebuilding the rural economy.
However, a rural/urban conflict over cost and jobs also means that raising tariffs on rice is good for farmers and rural peasants, but would be a severe burden for people living in destitute communities such as Cite Soleil in the capital.
One organisation, ANDAH (Association National des Agro-professionnels Haïtiens), insists that the revival of the agriculture economy is possible as well as necessary, but that the government should be ready to face resistance from NGOs. They say that tariffs could be slowly increased in order for a stable transition back to a successful rural economy.
The organisation explains that of the "3.4 billion gourdes (91 million dollars) budgeted for public investment in 2006-2007, 3.2 billion (85 million dollars) are managed by NGOs."
One member of ANDAH, and an employee of the ministry, argued that government action is required at the micro and macro level. He said that selective trade liberalisation, which is pushed by powerful international actors, is a major problem for Haitian agriculture. The same global actors have also pushed plans for a drastic privatisation programme upon the country.
In 2007, IPS interviewed Jude Bonhomme, a trained agronomist and a member of the Fédération nationale des paysans agricoles (FENATAPAO), which is part of a larger Haitian labour confederation. He insisted, although he knew of some new projects that had been aimed toward specific crops, that the government needed to pay more attention to regenerating the agrarian economy.
In a press conference in early February, Haiti's agriculture minister acknowledged that the students' petition made fair and reasonable recommendations which the government would implement. The protesters, while welcoming the promises, remain sceptical and say they will watch closely how the ministry moves forward with the agenda.
Recently the Haitian government blocked incoming shipments of poultry and eggs from the Dominican Republic because of the discovery of bird flu there.
While cross-border business owners are perplexed at this move, agronomy students say such policies could help local Haitian entrepreneurs and collectives to build up their own production. One group, a neighbourhood assembly in Port-au-Prince, the Sosyete Djòl Ansanm pou Demokrasi Patisipatif (SODA) is launching an urban farm plot and says it aims to increase milk and egg-producing projects for urban and rural peasant cooperatives.
*Nazaire St Fort and Jeb Sprague contribute to HaitiAnalysis.com.