Talking about a Green Revolution

December 14, 2009 § 4 Comments

Last weekend, I went visiting the farm of ITECA (Institut de Technologie et d’Animation), called “Ti Boukan”. When there’s not too much traffic the 30kms from Port-au-Prince only take a small hour drive on the way south. Ti Boukan is located on a mountain top in the locality of Gressier with not only place for their farming activities, but also with enough space to organize seminars and trainings for farmers and their organizations.

ITECA promotes alternative means to improve peasant production methods which places them at the heart of what is so badly needed in Haiti: national production. They do not only have some 3000 chickens, but are also raising goats and rabbits; although for the latter it will take some time before Haitians get used to eating those. Rabbit with plums in a sauce with beer is not a national dish here (it is in Belgium). But they might still provide a way to increase the supply of locally produced meat, fruits and vegetables. As for eggs, ITECA does not have the slightest problem of selling more than two thousand eggs a day. The demand for Haitian eggs exceeds the offer which make those from the US and Dominican Republic still an important import good. The institute has several projects running throughout the country, trying to reinforce the capacities of farmers. In Gros Morne, in the northern part of Haiti, they have a project to market mangos for export. It is often said that Haitian mangos are among the best in the world. Despite the huge deforestation, the potential is still there, and during the two harvest seasons, mangos literally flood the country.

Investing in agriculture and national production is often said to be the only way forward for Haiti and other developing countries. In the context of countries which are extremely vulnerable for an increase in the price of certain staple foods on the world market; the case for food sovereignty sounds even more credible. This concept opposes the international community’s paradigm of food security which is defined as the ability for a household to have access to sufficient, nutritious and safe food in order to maintain an active and healthy life. This definition was developed during a World Food Summit in 1996. It was during that meeting that Via Campesina, a Brazilian peasant organization which has some guys working in Haiti (apparently funded by Chavez’ Venezuela), came up with the concept of food sovereignty: the right for countries to define their own agricultural policies and attain sovereignty over the food supply inside the country. Food sovereignty denounces the neo-liberal measures of previous decennia which pushed many local farmers off the market in favour of the bigger American and European companies.  Until the eighties, Haiti was a self sufficient rice producer. The great Artibonite valley provides all what is needed to cultivate rice in big quantities; and many other crops, although much of the rest of the country is also suitable for those, rice being more confined to valleys. In the nineties in Haiti for example, import taxes on rice were brought back from 35 percent to 3 percent exposing Haitian rice farmers to cheaper, subsidised “Miami rice”. It resulted in an increase of 150 percent of the latter. Haiti is now the fourth largest rice export market for the US, behind Japan, Mexico and Canada.

There are, however, also other factors hampering the kickoff of a green revolution and stalling local production.  First and foremost the degradation of the environment and the kind of unsustainable cultivation techniques which are reinforcing those. Secondly, the complete lack of ownership over land is a problem which dates back to the early years of independence and which is still not solved. It’s a complicated issue in Haiti which I have not yet come to understand completely, but one thing is clear: it does not exist. The broader lack of property rights in developing countries is for the Peruvian “informal economy” economist Hernando de Soto even the main reason why economic growth is hardly or not materializing.[1] Even if his theories hold only part true, they still testify for much of Haiti’s impediments in raising national production.  And then there are of course also all the other development needs within all sectors of Haitian society. When a basic need such as food is an issue, it is however difficult to consider a trade-off within different sectors. When more than 1, 5 million people live in constant food insecurity, food sovereignty should not remain a hollow concept within the international development agenda. Unfortunately this has not yet been picked up by national and international stakeholders and ultimately, this has it reasons in a world of corporate farming. That’s a pity: Haiti is a tropical country with a huge capacity to feed not only its own people, but to also exploit its potential comparative advantages; admittedly, under other market and infrastructure circumstances. This strong potential comes with a moral side, which encompasses many more rights than the mere Right to Food. Making way for a Green Revolution in Haiti would indeed do much more than increase food supply. Job creation, halting the rural exodus and inciting reforestation, for a start.

However, the only field in which investments were being discussed lately, is the one of planting Jatropha, a biofuel.  Clearly, there’s an export market for those, but most of the Haitian civil society proponents of the need for a green revolution are against this idea. Jatropha plants would use Haitian land which consequently would not be used to farm other crops (more generally foreign investments have become very unpopular among civil society in Haiti). It would indeed be ironic that exactly Haiti starts growing biofuel, one year after the so called food riots of 2008, prompted by the sudden soaring prices of staple foods worldwide. One factor accounting for those increases are subsidies for farmers to harvest biofuels. This lowered the total production of other staple food in their favour. Haiti became a symbol as victim of this phenomenon although more factors, such as failed crops in Asia, also determine world prices. In the margin of the Kopenhagen summit on climate change, climate skeptic Viscount Monckton even used the case of Haiti to refer to young climate change activists as “Hitler youth”.  This hilarious discussion can be seen by clicking here. What one should retain however is the following:   planting biofuels provides indeed a direct risk to food security and secondly, soon other alternative energy sources might push biofuels off the market.

Often, advocates of food sovereignty are focusing too strongly on the local market and on reducing imports. There’s only one market, and that’s the world market. This does not mean that the US  and EU do not need to change their dumping practices, i.e subsidising to  allow their farmer to produce and export under the market price. This obviously remains what needs to be done most urgently, but sadly, developing countries or least developed countries such as Haiti can neither advance without integration in this world market.  As it stands now, Haiti has a huge trade deficit, not only because it is importing everything, but also because it is not exporting anything. Increasing the offer on the local market should be prioritized, but nobody knows how and with which money. Export-led growth could at least provide answer to question on reforming with which money. The idea for foreign investments in bio fuels is therefore not necessary a bad one, under the conditions of strict government led plans that is. Unfortunately, that government is either absent or taking care of its shady side businesses, leaving the “how?” unanswered.

In the meanwhile, organizations such as ITECA keep on working with limited means but at least doing what ought to be done in the country. For a start at least.

There’s a good article on alterpresse on them. Click here. They also have a blogspot.

On the way to Ti Boukan, an interesting tap tap was ahead of our car. Clearly on the right track!

On the way back, we stopped at a beach bar to have some lambi (a shellfish), straight from the boat:

[1] De Soto Hernando, The mystery of capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. New York: basic books, 2000.


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