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Dispatch from Haiti: War on Rice

The Artibonite region is Haiti’s rice bowl, and it could not be clearer as I traverse this lush valley. The rice fields rival those of Southeast Asia, spanning a breathtaking distance and then finally dissolving into a steep ring of mountains. A peasant working the fields is an understandably common sight around here. The more disturbing (and even more common) sight, however, is the rice imported from the US («Miami rice») that is sold to Haitians in local marketplaces. It is unthinkable that Haitians would be forced to buy rice from the North at prices that they cannot afford in the very place they grow it.

This has not always been the case in the Artibonite. Like many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Haiti was subjected to a trade liberalization and privatization in the mid 1980’s by international financial institutions like the World Bank and donor countries like the US. During this time, U.S. agribusinesses flooded the local market with massive quantities of cheap subsidized rice with which Haitian peasants couldn’t compete. After the large-scale imports had succeeded in paralyzing local production, prices skyrocketed. A kilo of imported rice is now worth an average day’s salary in the Artibonite.

I am spending the day with MOREPLA (Mouvman Revandikatif Peyizan Latibonit-Peasant Movement for Justice in the Artibonite), a local movement of rice producers that works with the coalition of Grassroots International’s partner PAPDA (The Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development). Leaders from MOREPLA explained to me that rice producers in the Artibonite potentially could have the capacity to provide livelihoods for more than 200,000 people in a department (state) that suffers a 78% unemployment rate. While they focus on advocacy for food sovereignty through rice, they see their work as a part of the bigger struggle for Haitian human rights through self-determination.

In the midst of these hard times, peasants from MOREPLA recognize their role as the principal actors capable of bringing about social change in their country. They organize themselves through an intricate structure of committees and workgroups (gwoupmons), and bond together to create a chain of nonviolent resistance. «We cannot do this alone», a farmer tells me, «we have to put our differences aside, work very hard, and unite ourselves».

Out in the fields, MOREPLA’s united challenge of the status quo through local rice production is in full swing, with women and youth taking key leadership positions. Once rice is harvested, it is sold or traded at small cooperatives and city stalls that support the sustainability of home-grown victuals.

In the last of many rice farms that I visit in the Artibonite valley, I meet with a female farmer whose return on her crops provides a source of income for her entire family. As I am leaving, she takes my hand and places a few grains of delicate rice in my palm, folding her fingers over mine. She smiles softly and looks back at the span of the field in which she works. She does not have to say anything. The green expanse behind us says it all.

To learn more about the politics of rice in Haiti, this short documentary featuring Grassroots International’s partner Camille Chalmers from the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development is a great resource.