Marc Cohen is a Senior Researcher on Humanitarian Policy at Oxfam America.
Haiti has long received starkly negative attention in the global media, which for years have focused on such themes as extreme poverty and inequality, corruption, drug trafficking, dysfunctional governance, the dreaded Ton Tons Macoutes secret police, and billions in wasted aid. Google “Haiti basket case” and you’ll get more than a million hits back in a little over a tenth of a second.
But there’s some good news coming out of Haiti too, and it’s about increased rice production, which is notable in a country that imports 83 percent of that daily staple.
On May 29, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations forecast that Haiti’s rice crop for 2013 would be nearly 25 percent larger than last year, when Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy caused severe damage. The forecast is also up over the trend for the previous five years, although just by a little.
That is very good news for Haiti, where consumers say that they much prefer local rice to imports. About three quarters of Haiti’s imports come from the United States, so imported rice is called diri Miami (Miami rice). Haitians buy so much diri Miami because, thanks to generous US government subsidies paid to rice farmers, it is much cheaper than the local product.
That means that imports make sense, for Haiti, doesn’t it? After all, much of Haiti lies on steep, deforested slopes that aren’t very good for growing rice, and the country frequently suffers from severe tropical storms like the ones that hit last year (more are forecast for this year). If rice from the United States, Brazil, or Vietnam is cheaper than Haitian rice, why shouldn’t Haitian consumers continue to rely on imports?
The biggest reason why Haiti should produce more of the rice that it consumes is that dependence on virtually duty-free imports leaves Haitian citizens vulnerable to world-market rice prices, which have become a lot more volatile in recent years. Between 2003 and 2008, the world price of rice went up fivefold, more than wheat or corn.
The price jump in Haiti caused widespread hardship, because in both the cities and countryside, most Haitians buy rice. There were protests around the country in April 2008. In the capital of Port-au-Prince, these turned violent, leading the country’s parliament to vote no confidence in Prime Minister Jacques Eduard Alexis.
The discontent led the Haitian government, with support from aid donors, to pay a lot more attention to food production. The government now devotes about nine percent of its budget to agriculture, compared to just four percent in the early 2000s. The current president, Michel Martelly, speaks of food self-sufficiency by 2016 and an end to hunger by 2020.
Can Haiti really move toward meeting a significantly larger share of rice demand from local farmers’ fields? After all, even this year’s bigger crop means that Haiti will still have to import two-thirds of the rice its citizens will consume.
The answer is a resounding “yes!” according to Oxfam’s research. (See Research Report and Policy Proposal on the rice value chain in Haiti.) But it will take a lot more investment in things like irrigation, mills, storage and drying facilities, better transportation, and making sure Haitian rice farmers have access to credit and technical advice. It also means changing Haiti’s trade policy so that there is a floor price, and imports don’t come in at anything lower that that minimum.
Oxfam works with rice farmer associations and cooperatives to help them participate effectively in Haiti’s food policy debates. Both Oxfam and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) are working with Haitian farmers to boost rice production, sponsoring pilot projects on the system of rice intensification (SRI). This boosts yields with less seed, less water, and mostly organic fertilizer to boost yields.
This approach—bringing farmers’ voices into the debate, changing unfavorable policies, boosting investment, and using an agroecological approach that is appropriate to Haiti’s resource-poor conditions—can help the country build on and go well beyond this year’s very encouraging news about home-grown rice.