Haiti: Don’t Give Us Food, Help Us Produce

Jonas Deronzil is a farmer from the village of Mogé in Haiti’s fertile Artibonite Valley, and one of about 2,000 members of a production and marketing cooperative. Here he analyzes the problems Haitian small producers face, notably U.S. food imports, and proposes alternatives.

I am a peasant planter, that’s all I do. From 1974 when I got out of school, I attached myself to my hoe so I could earn my bread. I’ve been farming for 36 years. My parents were planters too, my whole family going all the way back.

Before the 1980s, farmers could work on the strength of their courage. But since 1986 especially, when Jean-Claude [Duvalier] fled, through the government of [Gen. Henri] Namphy in 1988, rice has fallen flat in the country. The cost of everything is rising. The cost of manual labor is rising. They’ve had to leave a lot of their land fallow. What you harvest, you can’t sell for enough money to cover your costs. Peasants have had go to Port-au-Prince. That’s one of the causes for the expansion of slums throughout Port-au-Prince. Peasants are discouraged, the government doesn’t do anything to encourage their production.

Since foreign rice has invaded Haiti, we plant our rice but we can’t sell it. The foreigners have all the possibilities: they have water, they have machinery, they have easy access to fertilizer and other inputs. They can grow their rice in quantity. The peasants, poor devils, we spend a lot to grow it, but we can’t sell it. Sometimes we have to go to the loan sharks just to get enough money to survive.

We had a bad rice harvest this year, we didn’t get a lot of rice. We were already in a black misery by the time all the cast-off rice came here after the earthquake of January 12. But with the rice they’re dumping on us, it’s competing against ours and soon we’re going to fall into an even deeper hole.

This country has water, it has land. They used to call this country the pearl of the Antilles, today they call us the garbage bin of the Antilles. This country has been sold off.

They’re investing in the capital, but they don’t do anything to promote agriculture. What we need from the aid is agricultural machinery, is the means to collect water, ways to clean out our irrigation systems, fertilizer, technicians to help us, outlets to sell our produce, cheap places to buy seeds. Sending us big quantities of rice is not our solution.

We have to be able to work. I plant peas, corn, and rice. But I’m just growing dust.

I’m going to plant my rice this year, the same amount I normally plant or maybe less. When things are as hard as they are now, I can’t be sure that I’ll be able to buy seeds or anything else I need for the harvest. Maybe I’ll be able to buy two sacks [of seeds].

Our pea harvest was bad this year. But we don’t have any agronomists or technicians to help us. I don’t think we even have agricultural labs in this country. We can’t get any solutions. The government is absent.

Peasants have had to stop raising animals, too, because so much meat is being imported; when peasants go to the market with their little animal it doesn’t bring any kind of a reasonable price.

The rice they’re sending won’t be forever. They might start having problems back home, and then what? When they don’t give it to us anymore, are we all going to die? They have to help us produce.

That’s our situation today. If we keep going like this, there’s one chance for the future of this country: to perish. I’ll say that to anyone, including our bum of a president. I’d say the same thing to him.

If our national production were valued, if we got what we needed to produce, we could have another Haiti tomorrow. It could be more beautiful, more prosperous. We’d have order, discipline, security.

RACPABA [the Cooperative Farming Production Network of the Lower Artibonite] gives us support, watches out for us. They buy from us and sell for us, it’s a cooperative for both production and commerce. They help us: they work for us, let us mill our rice and corn, they help us get inputs, they give us credit that we only have to pay back when we’ve harvested. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t survive. But they’re just local.

I would like to tell the leaders the way things should be done. Everyone needs to participate. But the government doesn’t pay any attention to the peasants. They’re thinking about the well-off, not the bad-off. They’re just watching their own backs. But the poor class is dying of hunger, we need people thinking of us. The [earthquake] victims are getting a few grains, but what about the rest of us?

Here’s what Jonas Deronzil has to say to the U.S. government: “your policies are bad. Help us produce, don’t give us food. We’re not lazy. We have water. We have land, especially in the Artibonite. Give us seeds, give us material. Don’t give us rice, we don’t need it. Our country can produce rice. If we’re short, we’ll let them know. There’s a lot of things I’d like to tell the American government but I don’t know where to find them. But if I could find the Americans, I’d tell them that.”

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.