Politics of Poverty

Dumping peanuts on Haiti

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Peanuts being sorted before roasting in Haiti. (Photo: Cory Flanagin)

The people of Haiti deserve better agriculture solutions than extra peanuts from the American people.

When I was working in Haiti for Oxfam following the devastating earthquake in 2010, I became fond of mamba, the local version of peanut butter. It looks a lot like what we would buy here in the USA, but it’s less salty or sweet than the typical American spread. And before taking a big bite out of bread or cassava crackers spread with mamba, you will want to take a much more careful sample, because it’s usually spiced up with Scotch bonnet or habanero chili peppers. Once you get used to this nutty, spicy mix, it is definitely a taste worth acquiring.

The other great thing about mamba is that it is typically made from peanuts grown locally in Haiti.

So I was pretty shocked to read that the US Department of Agriculture is planning to dump 500 metric tons of packaged, dry-roasted peanuts on Haiti as part of its “Stocks for Food” program. This seems to be the offspring of the 1980s giveaway of USDA surplus cheese to food pantries and soup kitchens. It provides commodities that the US government has acquired through its domestic farm price and income support efforts to “feeding programs and food banks both domestically and overseas.”

The peanuts the USDA is shipping to Haiti will feed 140,000 malnourished school children in that country. While that may sound worthwhile, the use of imported peanuts stands in sharp contrast to the way the World Food Programme—with US government support—procures food for school meals from Haitian farmers. For example, WFP gets cheese and milk for 32,000 school children from Lèt Agogo, an initiative of Haitian dairy cooperatives that Oxfam has also supported.

This peanut fiasco sounds way too much like past uses of Haiti as a dumping ground for US agricultural surplus, something that has long concerned Oxfam. In the mid-1990s, the Haitian government acceded to pressure from the United States and others to drop its tariff on imported rice to nearly zero. This led to a flood of foreign rice into the Haitian market, mostly from the US. Haitian rice production plummeted. Bill Clinton, who as President encouraged this trade liberalization in Haiti, has more recently commented:

“It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake…. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did.”

We don’t need Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack or President Obama to engage in similar mea culpas down the road. USDA calls the peanut project in Haiti a “prideful use of the nation’s commodities” to help needy people. But helping Haitian peanut farmers to boost their productivity and improve the quality of what they produce—as the US government’s Feed the Future Initiative is doing, along with the Clinton Foundation and Partners in Health—seems like a much better way to help reduce poverty and provide food for Haiti’s school children.

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