Haiti farmers peeved over US peanuts
16 April 2016, 17:02
Mrebalais - The barefoot farmer oversees three teenage workers as they attack weeds with spades in a sun-baked field of peanut plants, a vital cash crop often grown on Haiti's marginal farmland.
If he's lucky, Francois Merilus will reap a meagre harvest amid a lengthy drought that has shrivelled yields and worsened Haiti's chronic hunger. Now the subsistence farmer is dismayed by what he believes could be the latest challenge to his ability to eke out a living: free peanuts arriving from the US as humanitarian aid.
"Foreign peanuts can only make things harder for us," said Merilus, whose organic farm in central Haiti is ploughed by oxen and maintained without pesticides or chemical fertilisers only because he could never dream of affording them.
A recently announced plan to ship 500 metric tons of surplus American peanuts to help feed 140 000 malnourished schoolchildren in Haiti has set off a fierce debate over whether such food aid is a humanitarian necessity or a counter-productive gesture.
Critics say agricultural surplus aid and heavily subsidised food imports do more harm than good by undercutting local farmers and pushing the hemisphere's poorest nation farther from self-sufficiency.
"This programme does nothing to boost capacity in Haiti and does nothing to address consistent food insecurity," said Oxfam America senior researcher Marc Cohen.
While an online petition is circulating calling for President Barack Obama's administration to stop surplus "dumping" on Haiti, the US government and the UN food agency are defending the aid programme, which they say represents only 1.4% of Haiti's average annual peanut production.
They say critics don't take into account how dismal Haitian harvests have been and how badly struggling children need more nutrition. As many as 30% of Haitian youngsters suffer from chronic malnutrition, and the cumulative impact of a three-year drought is so severe that Haiti is facing "unprecedented food insecurity," the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.
"If this donation arrives in Haiti, it is doubtful it will make any difference to the economy, but for sure it will make a difference in improving the diets of the most vulnerable children attending schools," said Alejandro Chicheri, a UN World Food Programme spokesperson.
The humanitarian programme calls for packaged, dry-roasted peanuts from a vast US stockpile to be distributed as morning snacks to youngsters in rural schools. Over 600 schools are already receiving daily hot meals with donated US bulgur wheat, green peas and vegetable oil.
To prevent leakage into the Haitian marketplace, the US is designing a monitoring programme with the UN food agency to ensure the peanuts go only to the targeted children, said Matt Herrick, communications director with the US Agriculture Department.
Herrick said the argument that the US should simply source Haitian peanuts doesn't take into consideration the fact that the local supply has a high incidence of aflatoxin, a carcinogenic fungus that grows on mouldy peanuts. While the USDA is funding research into the use of local peanuts in emergency rations and school feeding programmes, he said for now "the only factory in Haiti that produces peanut-based food rations to address the current health and nutrition crisis has routinely had to import aflatoxin-free peanuts."
The donation from the American peanut stockpile, which saw an influx of a whopping 113 167 metric tons from US farmers last year, is being made in co-ordination with Haiti's interim government. Senior officials at Haiti's agriculture ministry and its food security unit declined to comment.
The peanut contribution is a minuscule addition to the billions of US dollars in assistance that have flowed into Haiti aimed at promoting stability, health and prosperity. The US has long been the largest donor of foreign aid that Haiti is dependent on.
But Haiti has a complicated relationship with foreigners who provide aid and there is no shortage of Haitians who insist the United States, which occupied the country from 1919 until 1934, has a vested interest in keeping their homeland economically dependent.
The troubled history of US involvement in Haitian agricultural policy has done nothing to ease these suspicions.
In the early 1980s, fearing Haiti's Creole pigs could spread African swine fever amid a deadly outbreak, the US Congress authorised $23m to slaughter local pigs and replace them with hybrid pigs from Iowa. The imported pigs struggled to adapt, often became sick and had few litters.
For Haitians, the most bitterly remembered example is the collapse of the local rice market.
Haiti was largely self-sufficient in rice by the mid-1980s. But in subsequent years, Haiti repeatedly slashed tariffs on cheaper imported rice at the behest of the US and the World Bank. As a result, US subsidised rice inundated the market and the Caribbean country roughly the size of Maryland is now the second-biggest export destination for American rice growers, according to the USA Rice Federation.
"If the US really wanted to help Haiti they would focus on serious work improving irrigation and farmers' access to credit," said Haitian economist and activist Camille Chalmers, who argues that the peanut aid is mainly about drawing down the US stockpile and benefiting American agribusiness.
But efforts to lead Haiti to self-sufficiency face a slew of chronic obstacles, including political gridlock or instability, severe environmental degradation and neglected rural infrastructure. Although almost 80% of rural households farm, the agriculture sector with its persistent litany of natural disasters receives less than 4% of Haiti's budget.
Some international aid experts, like Cohen of Oxfam America, warn that the US peanut donation could eventually become another cautionary tale about humanitarian aid from a wealthy nation that undermines a flimsy economy in a poor one.
If this agricultural surplus aid results in a "consistent policy of shipping US peanuts into a market that has the potential to supply itself then it very well could cause lasting damage to Haiti's fragile agricultural sector", he said.