VIOLENT PROTESTS IGNITED BY SOARING FOOD PRICES TOPPLED ON APRIL 12 PRIME MINISTER Jacques Edouard Alexis of Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. It was the first government in the world that fell victim to angry people suffering from high food costs due to rising fuel prices, weather problems, increased demand in China and India, low global stocks, the use of crops to create biofuels and commodity speculation.
Food riots have also erupted in more than a dozen countries.
There?s another reason for the food riots in Haiti -- highly subsidized US rice that flooded the country in exchange for loans from the International Monetary Fund. The US cereal put Haitian rice farmers out of business and destroyed the ability of the poor country to feed itself with domestically grown food.
In the Philippines, the Arroyo administration is finally acknowledging the need to be self-sufficient in rice after years of importing the staple to cover production shortfalls. The fear of being ousted by a hungry population has made possible the change in the administration?s mindset. -- Ed.
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THE ST. CLAIRE?S CHURCH Food program in the Tiplas Kazo neighborhood of Port-au-Prince serves 1,000 free meals a day, almost all to hungry children, five times a week in partnership with the What If Foundation.
Children from Cite Soleil have been known to walk the five miles to the church for a meal. The costs of rice, beans, vegetables, a little meat, spices, cooking oil and propane for the stoves have gone up dramatically. Because of the rise in the cost of food, the portions are now smaller.
But hunger is on the rise and more and more children come for the free meal. Hungry adults used to be allowed to eat the leftovers once all the children were fed, but now there are few leftovers.
The New York Times lectured Haiti on April 18 that ?Haiti, its agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself.? Unfortunately, the article did not talk at all about one of the main causes of the shortages?the fact that the United States and other international financial bodies destroyed Haitian rice farmers to create a major market for the heavily subsidized rice from US farmers.
This is not the only cause of hunger in Haiti and other poor countries, but it is a major force.
Thirty years ago, Haiti raised nearly all the rice it needed. What happened?
In 1986, after the expulsion of dictator Jean Claude ?Baby Doc? Duvalier, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned Haiti $24.6 million in desperately needed funds. (Baby Doc had raided the treasury on the way out.)
But in order to get the IMF loan, Haiti was required to reduce tariff protections for rice and other agricultural products and some industries to open up its markets to foreign competition. The United States has by far the largest voice in decisions of the IMF.
Doctor Paul Farmer was in Haiti then and saw what happened. ?Within less than two years, it became impossible for Haitian farmers to compete with what they called ?Miami rice.? The whole local rice market in Haiti fell apart as cheap, US-subsidized rice, some of it in the form of ?food aid,? flooded the market. There was violence, ?rice wars? and lives were lost.?
?American rice invaded the country,? recalled Charles Suffrard, a leading rice grower in Haiti in an interview with the Washington Post in 2000. By 1987 and 1988, there was so much rice coming into the country that many stopped working the land.
Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest who has been the pastor at St. Claire and an outspoken human rights advocate, agrees. ?In the 1980s, imported rice poured into Haiti, below the cost of what our farmers could produce it. Farmers lost their businesses. People from the countryside started losing their jobs and moving to the cities. After a few years of cheap imported rice, local production went way down.?
Still, the international business community was not satisfied. In 1994, as a condition for US assistance in returning to Haiti to resume his elected presidency, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced by the United States, the IMF and the World Bank to open up the markets in Haiti even more.
But Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. What reason could the United States have in destroying the rice market of this tiny country?
Haiti is definitely poor. The US Agency for International Development reports that the annual per capita income is less than $400. The United Nations reports that life expectancy in Haiti is 59, while in the United States it is 78.
Over 78 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, more than half live on less than $1 a day.
Yet, Haiti has become one of the very top importers of rice from the United States. The US Department of Agriculture 2008 numbers show Haiti is the third largest importer of US rice?at over 240,000 metric tons of rice.
Rice is a heavily subsidized business in the United States. Rice subsidies in the United States totaled $11 billion from 1995 to 2006. One producer alone, Riceland Foods Inc. of Stuttgart Arkansas, received more than $500 million in rice subsidies between 1995 and 2006.
The Cato Institute has reported that rice is one of the most heavily supported commodities in the United States?with all three different subsidies averaging over $1 billion a year since 1998 and projected to average more than $700 million a year through 2015. The result? ?Tens of millions of rice farmers in poor countries find it hard to lift their families out of poverty because of the lower, more volatile prices caused by the interventionist policies of other countries.?
In addition to three different subsidies for rice farmers in the United States, there are also direct tariff barriers of 3 to 24 percent, reports Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute?the same type of protection, though much higher, that the United States and the IMF required Haiti to eliminate in the 1980s and 1990s.
US protection for rice farmers goes even further. A 2006 story in the Washington Post found that the federal government had paid at least $1.3 billion in subsidies for rice and other crops since 2000 to individuals who do no farming at all, including $490,000 to a Houston surgeon who owned land near Houston that once grew rice.
And it is not only the Haitian rice farmers who have been hurt.
Paul Farmer saw it happen to the sugar growers as well. ?Haiti, once the world?s largest exporter of sugar and other tropical produce to Europe, began importing even sugar?from US-controlled sugar production in the Dominican Republic and Florida. It was terrible to see Haitian farmers put out of work. All this sped up the downward spiral that led to last month?s food riots.?
After the riots and protests, President Rene Preval of Haiti agreed to reduce the price of rice, which was selling for $51 for a 110 pound bag, to $43 dollars for the next month. No one thinks a one-month?s fix will do anything but delay the severe hunger pains a few weeks.
Haiti is far from alone in this crisis. The Economist reports a billion people worldwide live on $1 a day. The US-backed Voice of America reported that about 850 million people were suffering from hunger worldwide before the latest round of price increases.
Thirty three countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices, World Bank President Robert Zoellick told the Wall Street Journal. When countries have many people who spend half to three-quarters of their daily income on food, ?there is no margin of survival.?
In the United States, people are feeling the worldwide problems at the gas pump and in the grocery. Middle-class people may cut back on extra trips or on high-priced cuts of meat. The number of people on food stamps in the United States is at an all-time high.
But in poor countries, where malnutrition and hunger were widespread before the rise in prices, there is nothing to cut back on except eating. That leads to hunger riots. In the short term, the world community is sending bags of rice to Haiti. Venezuela sent 350 tons of food. The United States just pledged $200 million extra for worldwide hunger relief.
The UN is committed to distributing more food.
What can be done in the medium term? The United States provides much of the world?s food aid, but does it in such a way that only half of the dollars spent actually reach hungry people.
US law requires that food aid be purchased from US farmers, processed and bagged in the United States and shipped on US vessels?which cost 50 percent of the money allocated. A simple change in US law to allow some local purchase of commodities would feed many more people and support local farm markets.
In the long run, what is to be done?
The President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who visited Haiti in the third week of April, said: ?Rich countries need to reduce farm subsidies and trade barriers to allow poor countries to generate income with food exports. Either the world solves the unfair trade system, or every time there?s unrest like in Haiti, we adopt emergency measures and send a little bit of food to temporarily ease hunger.?
US citizens know very little about the role of their government in helping create the hunger problems in Haiti or in other countries. But there is much that individuals can do. People can donate to help feed hungry people and participate with advocacy organizations like Bread for the World or Oxfam to help change US and global rules which favor the rich countries. This advocacy can help countries have a better chance to feed themselves.
Meanwhile, Merisma Jean-Claudel, a young high school graduate in Port-au-Prince told journalist Wadner Pierre ?...people can?t buy food.
Gasoline prices are going up. It is very hard for us over here. The cost of living is the biggest worry for us?no peace in the stomach means no peace in the mind. I wonder if others will be able to survive the days ahead because things are very, very hard.?
On the ground, people are very hungry, according to Fr. Jean-Juste. ?Our country must immediately open emergency canteens to feed the hungry until we can get them jobs. For the long run, we need to invest in irrigation, transportation, and other assistance for our farmers and workers,? he said.
In Port-au-Prince, some rice arrived days after Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis was fired. A school in Fr. Jean-Juste?s parish received several bags of rice. They had raw rice for 1,000 children but the principal still had to come to the priest asking for help. There was no money for charcoal or oil.
Jervais Rodman, an unemployed carpenter with three children, stood in a long line on April 19 in Port-au-Prince to get UN-donated rice and beans.
When Rodman got the small bags, he told Ben Fox of the Associated Press, ?The beans might last four days. The rice will be gone as soon as I get home.?
(Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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Irri, WB and Philippine rice imports
By Jessica Reyes-Cantos
WHETHER YOU CALL it a rice crisis or rice shortage, one thing is clear -- many people cannot afford the price of rice. This explains the long queues of people trying to get hold of the low-priced rice from the National Food Authority (NFA).
Ironic is the fact that the Philippines is now the world?s top rice importer, while the International Rice Research Institute (Irri), the world?s supposed authority when it comes to rice production, holds office in the country. The Department of Agriculture has been chanting the self-sufficiency mantra but rice production has not met domestic demand. The mantra lacks a coherent master plan that will ensure rice is served in every household and protect the livelihood of rice farmers.
But the mantra is contrary to the core prescriptions of Irri and the World Bank, which are among the institutions calling on the government to give up its rice self-sufficiency goal. They claim that the Philippines can trust the global market to feed its people.
Dr. David Dawe, working as an Irri economist, conducted a three-year study whose results were published in July 2006 in Irri?s Rice Today publication. Dawe and his group asserted that the world market could be trusted to provide for cheaper rice that will benefit poor consumers. He said world rice production was more stable because of irrigation and high-yielding varieties that are pest-and-disease resistant.
This, notwithstanding the Bloomberg report on Aug. 14, 2006 indicating the prospect of reduced production that threatened to spur inflation in rice-importing nations in 2008. The report said rice inventories worldwide were already near a 26-year low and would drop further.
As if on cue, global prices have grown by leaps and bounds, hitting the $1,000-per-metric-ton mark barely four months from the beginning of this year when the price was only $430 per metric ton. Now, Irri is singing a different tune, seeking to ?improve agronomic practices, enhance the ability to effectively utilize rice varieties and promote rice breeding.?
It appears that Irri failed in its mission to develop the Philippine rice industry and is now espousing rice importation. This does not speak well for Irri, rendering it useless in the Philippines as it can not even prove its worth to a case closer to home.
The World Bank, for its part, chastised the Philippine government?s rhetoric of achieving rice self-sufficiency. In its review of the agriculture department?s public expenditure in 2007, it asked the government to replace its policy of rice self-sufficiency with a policy to support food security at the household level through importation.
Limited importation has been identified as the culprit that caused rice prices to go up, reducing the ability of households to buy food.
Fast forward to 2008, the government has worked nonstop to ensure rice supply from the world market. It is now forced to import more than 2-million metric tons even at skyrocketing prices because of the political implication of the shortage of low-priced rice.
The government chose to listen to these so-called experts and look where it has led us -- the long lines for cheap NFA rice -- starkly telling us the huge problem we have to face as global prices are not likely to stabilize and the critical lean months draw near.
It may not be too late for the government to listen to the farmers who have fought hard to make rice farming a viable livelihood for poor farmers.
Government?s advisers, who advocate liberalized market for the country?s staple, should be made to stand before the public along with the agriculture officials who turn a deaf ear to calls for rice self-sufficiency and food sovereignty. These supposed experts owe the people rice on the table.
(Jessica Reyes-Cantos, an economist, is the lead convenor of Rice Watch and Action Network [R1].)