Unit 3 Destination Reflection - Haiti
For this Destination Reflection, we ask you to watch a brief (17 min.) video about the quest for food sovereignty in Haiti. First, however, it may be helpful to read the following background information.
Background on Haiti and Food Sovereignty
Until relatively recently, the Haitian people grew most of their own food. Up until the 1980s, in fact, Haitian farmers were producing enough rice that they could feed the country and still have enough left over to export. This was due to the fact that throughout this period, farmers were protected by sizeable tariffs, which ensured that the prices of peasant agricultural products could compete with those of imported foods.
Today, this situation has been entirely reversed. 83% of the rice Haitians now consume comes from abroad, and Haiti’s own small-scale producers have been rendered destitute. One key reason for this change lies in the trade policies that Western institutions forced on Haiti in the 1990s. At the beginning of that decade, Haiti’s popular and democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from power by a right-wing coup. The Clinton administration subsequently offered to help reinstate him, but only on condition that he slash Haiti’s protective tariffs. He did so, cutting them from 50% to about 3%.
These changes left Haitian farmers at the mercy of an international food market that was unfairly stacked against them. U.S. foods are produced on massive agribusiness farms that are heavily subsidized by the government, and Haitian peasants, tilling small plots with little to no government support, simply cannot compete with the prices of food produced on these US farms. Many have therefore been forced to leave their land and look for insecure and poorly compensated jobs in Haiti’s urban slums.
In addition to these effects on Haiti’s rural communities, the policy changes of the 1990s also had dire ecological consequences. In order to compete with cheap imported food, many Haitian peasants began planting new crops, such as beans, that were less expensive to grow but that depleted Haiti’s soil more rapidly. This contributed to the problem of soil erosion that besets Haitian rural communities today and poses a major environmental challenge to the whole country.
“Food Sovereignty” refers to a more democratic way of organizing the food system and is meant to provide an alternative to these policies. The term was coined in 1996 by La Via Campesina, a decentralized grassroots movement of small-scale proprietors across the Global South. As they define the concept on their website: “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. […] It puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.” (http://viacampesina.org/en/)
Please watch this video from Development and Peace, a Canadian Catholic NGO, which looks at several ongoing collective efforts on the part of Haitians to ensure food sovereignty and to heal the damage wrought by the policies described above:
- What was new or surprising to you in these materials?
- What feelings come up for you as you think about the recent history of U.S. policies in Haiti?
- Is there anything that you feel these materials get wrong or leave out about this history?
- Has your understanding of the root causes behind Haiti’s persistent poverty been altered by these materials? If so, how?
- What goals, ideals, and characteristics are shared by the four organizations that Development and Peace looks at in this video (one of whom, MPP, is a longtime partner of the UUSC)?
In the video, Emile Eyma Jr., the Director of IRATAM, tells us that he welcomes “international solidarity” with his work, but also emphasizes that Haitians “must be the authors of our own destiny.”
- What do you think is at stake in emphasizing this point, in light of what you have learned about Haiti’s history?
In what ways do you think we as partners and allies coming from the West could better maintain the distinction between solidarity and intrusion in our work?