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Haiti: Roots of Liberty — Roots of Disaster

January 2010

Grassroots International ally Food First’s executive director Eric Holt-Jimenez wrote recently — on HuffPost — on the long roots of the disaster in Haiti. His point about the “historic bleeding of Haiti’s economy and the systematic undermining of its political institutions” being at the root of the disaster as much as the “tectonics that leveled Port-au-Prince” is right on the mark. Grassroots’ partners and allies in Haiti have long struggled against that bleeding and undermining, and fought for better Haitian and international policies on agriculture, trade, and food that would sustain their people, and their land. Their current and long-term efforts for relief and rebuilding continue to be infused by that vision and those strategies.

“In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep.” Toussaint L’Ouverture 



The leader of Haiti’s historic slave rebellion probably had a good idea of just how vicious the colonial powers could be. He knew they would use all of their political and military muscle to kill the roots of the modern world’s first black republic. But L’Ouverture could never have imagined the chain of human tragedies that would follow these vengeful acts of political and economic terrorism. He would never have imagined the national disaster following last week’s devastating earthquake.

This is an important point: the disaster, in which hundreds of thousands of Haitians may eventually perish, was unleashed by the 7.0 earthquake. An earthquake is simply a natural hazard that in and of itself may or may not result in disaster. A disaster is a phenomenon in waiting that explodes on the scene when a hazard overwhelms people’s ability to anticipate, cope, resist, and recover from a natural hazard because of their high level of vulnerability. When vulnerability is low, a hazard has little or no effect. When it is high, disasters are severe. The mounting death toll in Haiti–due to the exceptionally high level of vulnerability of its people–is a tragic testament to the historic bleeding of Haiti’s economy and the systematic undermining of its political institutions, These factors–just as much as the tectonics that leveled Port-au-Prince–are the roots of the disaster.

At a time when governments and international relief organizations are desperately attempting to provide rescue, medical care, water, food and shelter to earthquake victims it would seem inappropriate to ask how the country ever became so vulnerable. However, for relief and recovery efforts to be truly effective and sustainable, they must be sure not to reproduce the same vulnerable conditions that contributed to the horrific magnitude of the disaster in the first place.

This week’s media reports were interspersed with references to the devastating and interminable reparations imposed on Haiti by France for the loss of “property” following the successful rebellion that drove French slave-owners from the island in 1804. Some stories go so far as to follow Haiti’s chronic debt straight through the U.S. military occupation of 1915-1934 into the 30-year Duvalier kleptocracy. A few even trace the debt trail right up to the Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund in the mid-1980s and continuing through the 1990s, implemented by the Haitian government of Preval until the time of the earthquake.

This is where the telling tends to diffuse into the blogosphere… Because while it is safe to assume that no more economic reparations will be extorted from Haiti for having become the second republic in the hemisphere (they finally paid the French off in 1947 to the tune of $2.7 billion in current dollars), it is not safe to say that Haitian reconstruction will be free from the current machinations of the IMF, the World Bank and northern corporations that may see in the Haitian earthquake an investment opportunity.

Remember the global food riots of 2008? They started in Haiti when people were surviving on mud cookies while abundant (but expensive) food stocked the shelves. They angrily rebelled against an unjust food system and threw the prime minister out of office. This food rebellion was a direct result of the IMF’s programs–implemented under U.S. tutelage–that slashed tariffs, closed state-owned industries, opened the agricultural market to U.S. producers and cut spending on agriculture by 30% in Haiti’s fertile, rice-producing Artibonite Valley. Rice and other imports, particularly highly subsidized U.S. agricultural products, immediately flooded the Haitian market. In 1987, Haiti met 75% of its rice needs through domestic production. Today, of the 400,000 tons of rice consumed in Haiti each year, three-quarters consists of “Miami Rice”–the Haitian nickname for the cheap U.S. taxper subsidized rice sold at half the price of local grain.

In 1991 Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was removed in a military coup. As a condition for supporting his return, the U.S., IMF and World Bank required that he further open up the Haitian economy to foreign trade. Haitian tariffs on rice were reduced from 35% to 3%, the lowest in the Caribbean region, and government funding was diverted away from agricultural development to servicing the nation’s foreign debt. Without government support or protection, Haitian farmers were in no position to compete with their highly subsidized U.S. counterparts. Subsidies for rice producers in the U.S. totaled approximately $1.3 billion in 2003 alone, amounting to more than double Haiti’s entire budget for that year.¹

Haiti’s economy was to be predicated on a shift from agriculture to manufacturing. Since the 1980s, the economic strategy pursued by USAID and the international financial institutions has been to capitalize on Haiti’s cheap labor to increase exports in manufactured goods and agricultural “dessert” products like mangoes and coffee. The idea was to generate revenue to service Haiti’s unpayable debt. This strategy flopped. Instead, Haiti experienced massive rural to urban migration, blinding poverty, unemployment and an explosion of urban slums. It is precisely the people living in these slums that have borne the brunt of the disaster. This is the man-made result of massive, unplanned and reckless urbanization.

Reports are that droves of people are leaving Port-au-Prince for the countryside in search of food and shelter. Though damage was not as extensive in Haiti’s rural communities, many houses have fallen and some roads are un-passable. Little or no aid is reaching people outside Port-au Prince, so Haiti’s local organizations and networks, like the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA) , the National Congress of Papaye Peasant Movement (MPNKP), the Kordinasyon Rejyonal Oganysasyon Sides (KROS),Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (TK), and the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) have stepped forward providing first aid, water, food and shelter. These are the same grassroots development organizations that came together to support reconstruction after Haiti’s disastrous 2008 hurricane season.

With a shift in development strategies, Haiti’s farmers could feed and provide employment to scores of displaced people. Mobilizing and organizing even in the midst of their own shock and suffering, the energy, compassion and creativity of the Haitians themselves shows us what it will take to successfully implement relief and reduce Haiti’s grinding vulnerability. The history of foreign intervention in Haiti has created a dangerous dependence on the global market. The success of relief and reconstruction efforts in Haiti will depend in the short and long term on rebuilding its food system as an engine for local economic development. This task requires a commitment to food sovereignty, the democratization of the food system in favor of the poor.

Aid can nourish the roots of disaster or the roots of liberty. The future of Haiti’s brave but beleaguered people depends on making sure it does the latter.
¹Adapted from “Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice”

Eric Holt-Jimenez is Executive Director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, CA.

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