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A continuing effort to answer an elusive, multi-billion-dollar question: "After Haiti's devastating earthquake, where did the aid money go?"

Haitian farmers call on US to stop subsidizing its own

The 2012 Farm Bill could reverse a decades-long policy of agricultural subsidies that has undercut Haiti’s local rice production.

Struggling to produce

But Haitian rice farmers say the solution to the nation’s unmet rice demand isn’t to have the United States feed the country, but rather to help Haitians once again produce enough to feed themselves.

Back in the village of Coupon in the Artibonite Valley, farmers toil away with outdated and non-mechanized equipment. They lack proper irrigation and drainage trenches that would protect their crops from floods during the rainy season.

“We have a lot of land in Haiti that could produce rice, but they don’t because we don’t have tractors, fertilizer, irrigation,” said Jean Jude, a rice grower and pastor of a church in Coupon where an association of farmers meets to discuss shared problems and work together to purchase fertilizer and seed.

Unlike American rice which is processed in large production facilities capable of removing dirt and grime and leaving the rice a uniform, white color, most of Haiti’s rice is still de-hulled by hand.

“People don’t like this rice because there are little rocks that could break their teeth. So people who come usually buy American rice,” explained Freguens Neise, a 32-year-old farmer in Coupon who grows rice, potatoes and other crops.

Rice grower and seller Linda Estiverne grabs a handful of locally-grown rice of the type grown in the village of Coupon in Haiti's agricultural Artibonite region.
(Jacob Kushner/GlobalPost)

Karen Hansen-Kuhn, director of international programs for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy which researches the effects of US agricultural policy abroad, says improving the ability of farmers in developing nations like Haiti to meet their own consumption needs depends first on increasing local production.

“What really needs to happen is we need to expand more comprehensive agricultural development programs geared toward supporting local farmers to grow local foods sustainably and without reliance on foreign (food).”

The US government claims to have “introduced improved seeds, fertilizer, and technologies to more than 9,700 farmers” through its five-year, $127 million Feed the Future program, formerly known as WINNER. Participating farmers have seen “increased rice yields by 64 percent, corn yields by 338 percent, bean crops by 97 percent, and plantain outputs by 21 percent,” USAID claims.

But here in Coupon, residents say they have received none of that assistance. The only foreign entity working in the town is a Taiwanese technical program that invites farmers them to pool their resources and buy fertilizer on credit, to be paid back at harvest time.

Volny Paultre, a Haitian agronomist for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, says there are four factors that limit the production and sale of Haitian rice. The first is land. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, 63 percent of Haiti’s farmers work plots of a quarter-hectare or less or about 2.5 acres.

“When someone has one-fourth of a hectare, it’s not enough even for the family to live off of” because their production is immediately limited by access to growing space, says Paultre.

This leads to the second obstacle: credit. The few agricultural banks that exist in Haiti offer loans starting at a daunting 34 percent annual interest rate, which Haiti’s rice farmers either can’t afford or are barred from applying for altogether because they don’t have enough land to make loan repayment viable.

The third challenge is that the absence of modern rice processing facilities like those used in the United States results in the sort of poor quality rice contaminated with dirt and rocks that Coupon residents say are a turn-off to consumers.

The fourth challenge Paultre describes is that tariffs on imported rice — lowered due to US pressure in the 1980s and 1990s — “leads to unfair competition with domestic production.”

Add to that billions of dollars in subsidies to American rice farmers that lower the price further and competition becomes impossible.

If Congress were to reduce or eliminate those subsidies, “The costs of foreign production would be higher than that of American production,” said Paultre. “Local production will have a better chance and we will support our reliance on Haitian rice farmers.”

Congress could eliminate subsidies in 2012 Farm Bill

The American Jewish World Service, which funds long-term agricultural and economic development in Haiti, released a report in February that concluded 2012 could well be the year in which Congress puts an end to decades-long policy of direct subsidies to American farmers.

The report points out that Congress may have set a precedent when it allowed subsidies for ethanol production — what it calls “one of the sacred cows of agricultural policy” — to expire at the end of the last year. Today, AJWS and other groups like Oxfam International are asking legislators to eliminate direct subsidies to growers of “program crops” including rice.

Indeed, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) indicated last month that the “era of direct payments” to American farmers is coming to a close, which could signal a victory for reformers.

Opposition will likely come from lawmakers in America’s rice-producing states that received the bulk of the subsidies. Arkansas rice growers received 43 percent of total subsidies over the past 15 years, followed by California (19 percent), Louisiana (15 percent) and Texas (12 percent). Constituent farmers in these states and others depend upon heavy rice subsidies to produce the crop at a price low enough to sell abroad.

But the determining factor as to whether Congress will cut subsidies may actually end up having little to do with farmers in developing nations like Haiti, and everything to do with the US budget deficit.

“There will be a lot of pressure to reduce the budget,” said Hansen-Kuhn, who believes Congress is likely to further reduce subsidies as they did in the 2008 bill.

But the ongoing stalemate in the currently divided Capitol means there’s a risk that no compromise will be reached at all by the time the current bill expires in September — in which case US agricultural law would technically revert back to the 1949 version of the bill.

The Haitian farmers’ advocate Chalmers says Congress owes it to Haitian farmers to eliminate direct subsidies to American rice producers.

“It creates food dependence and food insecurity,” he said. “And it’s a problem also because a lot of money leaves the country when it could return to help our national economy.”