HINCHE, Haiti – Last week, thousands of farmers and supporters of Haitian peasant agriculture marched for hours under the hot Caribbean sun to call for more government support for locally grown seeds and agriculture.
The demonstration was organized by the Peasant Movement of Papay and other farmer associations, human rights and women’s groups, and the Haitian Platform for Alternative Development (PAPDA), the Haitian online agency AlterPresse reported from the march. The official theme of the peaceful demonstration was “Land Grabbing is Endangering Agricultural Sovereignty.”
Singing slogans like “Long Live Haitian Agriculture!” and “Long live local seeds!” the crowd – wearing straw hats and red T-shirts – wound its way on foot, donkeys, and bikes through this dusty provincial capital. The demonstration ended at a square named for farmer Charlemagne Péralte, who lead the “Caco” peasant revolt against the U.S. army occupation from 1916 until 1919, when U.S. Marines assassinated him.
One year ago, thousands of farmers covered the same march route to protest the import of a “gift” of seeds from Monsanto. The farmers burned some of the seeds, calling them a “death plan” for peasant agriculture.
Last spring, in violation of Haitian law, the Minister of Agriculture gave the agribusiness giant Monsanto permission to “donate” 505 tons of seeds to Haiti. The first shipment of 60 tons, reportedly of maize and vegetable seeds, arrived in May 2010. Some of the seeds were coated with a chemical (Thiram) so toxic that the EPA forbids its sale to home gardeners in the U.S.. Monsanto announced its $4 million gift was “to support the reconstruction effort” in Haiti.
What has become of the seeds that Monsanto gave? And how real was the fear of Haitian farmer organizations that the donation was a Trojan horse?
In Haiti, a US Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded agricultural project accepted the Monsanto “gift.” USAID/WINNER (Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources) is a five-year, $126 million US taxpayer-funded agriculture and environment program. WINNER is run by giant beltway contractor Chemonics International, which in 2010 ranked #51 on the list of top 100 US government contractors in the world, earning over $476 million in contacts that year.
USAID/WINNER’s Chief of Party is Jean Robert Estimé, minister of Foreign Affairs under dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
In its post-earthquake strategy document, the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture called for massive seed distribution – covering 30 percent of farmers’ needs – for three seasons post-earthquake, and gave its warm approval of the Monsanto “gift.” This is even though allowing new varieties (the maize and most of the vegetable varieties) onto Haitian soil directly contravenes Haitian law and international conventions… which aim to protect the gene pool and the ecosystem in general.
The Ministry of Agriculture issued a list of “approved” seed varieties in March. None of the maize varieties on the list are hybrids.
Asked by Haiti Grassroots Watch about the fact that new varieties posed a threat to Haitian biodiversity, and that seeds and other plants and animals are being imported into Haiti without control, Ministry of Agriculture Director of National Seed Services Emmanuel Prophete admitted that the Ministry does not have the power to control the borders.
“We are supposed to have a quarantine system, and all seeds should be tested for germination and adaptation before they are distributed,” Prophete conceded in an interview earlier this year. “We don’t have the power to do that at this time.”
Asked about the introduction of the Monsanto hybrid seeds onto Haitian soil, Francesco Del Re of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) would not directly condemn the “gift” seeds. But, he noted, for its emergency seed distributions, the FAO-led “Agriculture Cluster” imported only the seeds on [the government approval] list, “for a very precise reasons, because the hybrids need to be renewed every year and do have to be bought by peasants every year.”
Asked if the FAO attempted to block the Ministry or the USAID/WINNER program from importing and distributed seeds, Del Re said: “We gave advice. That is what we did. Afterwards, naturally, we are not the national police, so we can’t verify everything, everywhere, but we did all we could do… I agree with the philosophy that we discussed with the Ministry and that we put into place with them. Afterwards, if other partners make other choices, that is their responsibility.”
Dangers of Introducing Untested Seeds in Emergency Context:
In a May 13 news release, Monsanto announced: “Haitian farmers, who otherwise may not have had sufficient seeds to plant this season [Haiti Grassroots Watch emphasis] in their earthquake-ravaged country, are receiving help from a unique public and private partnership.”
Except… Haitian farmers did have enough seed to plant that season, according to several reports.
Monsanto’s “gift” announcement came a full two months after the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) – which has extensive experience in Haitian agriculture development work – released a “rapid seed assessment” report [PDF] for southern Haiti, one of the areas worst-hit by the earthquake. The assessment, circulated to humanitarian and development organizations working in Haiti, recommended against the importation and distribution of seeds. CRS wrote: “Direct seed distribution should not take place given that seed is available in the local market and farmers’ negative perceptions of external seed. This emergency is not the appropriate time to try to introduce improved varieties on anything more than a small scale for farmer evaluation. [our emphasis]”
A multi-agency seed security study shepherded by International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in the spring and summer of 2010 warned that “one should never introduce varieties in an emergency context which have not been tested in the given agro-ecological site and under farmers’ management conditions.”
Reached in January 2011, principal CIAT researcher Louise Sperling noted that most hybrids require extra water and better soils, and that most of Haiti was not appropriate for maize hybrids. While not opposed to the use of hybrids – when there is adequate training, irrigation, fertilizer, and when farmers can afford to replace them – she said she was concerned that “the hybrids being promoted have never been tested extensively on-farm” in Haiti.
And, she asked, “What if the technology fails? And, if [farmers] want to buy the seed again, where will it be available and at what price?”
At least some of the peasant farmer groups receiving Monsanto and other hybrid maize and other cereal seeds have little understanding of the implications of getting “hooked” on hybrid seeds. (Most Haitian farmers select seeds from their own harvests.) One of the USAID/WINNER trained extension agents told Haiti Grassroots Watch that in his region, farmers won’t need to save seeds anymore: “They don’t have to kill themselves like before. They can plant, harvest, sell or eat. They don’t have to save seeds anymore because they know they will get seeds from the [WINNER-subsidized] store.”
When it was pointed out that WINNER’s subsidies end when the project ends in four years, he had no logical response.
Director of National Seed Service Prophete told Haiti Grassroots Watch that when peasants get improved seed varieties, production rises, but “the system is based on a subsidy… You have to ask yourself about the sustainability because if the policy changes one day, where will peasants get seeds?… We’ll get to a point where, one day, we have a lot of seeds, and then suddenly, when all the NGOs are gone, we won’t have any.”
Promoting the Product, Regardless of Risk:
According to its website, one of WINNER’s goals is to help famers “increase their productivity and to double their incomes in five years” through the use of better irrigation and techniques, and by using better seeds, fertilizers, and other inputs provided at only a tenth the of actual cost through “Farmer’s Stores” run by local farmers organizations.
One USAID/WINNER staffperson passed on an internal document to the journalists. “Preliminary Report on the seed donation of hybrid maize and vegetable seeds from MONSANTO” revealing USAID/WINNER’s intent. According to the document, “Despite a whole media campaign [by grassroots organizations and “political leaders”] against hybrids under the cover of GMO/Agent Orange/Round Up, the seeds were used almost everywhere, the true message got through, although not at the level hoped for [emphasis added].”
The report continues, “We are in the process of working as quickly as possible with farmers to increase as much as possible the use of hybrid seeds in the plain areas where it is possible to give them technical support.”
Even though most of the internally displaced people (66 percent) had returned to cities by mid-June, seed distributions continued throughout 2010 and into 2011. When CIAT researcher Sperling learned of this in March, 2011, she told Haiti Grassroots Watch, “Direct seed aid – when not needed, and given repetitively – does real harm. It undermines local systems, creates dependencies and stifles real commercial sector development.”
Sperling added that some humanitarian actors “seem to see delivering seed aid as easy and they welcome the overhead (money) – even if their actions may hurt poor farmers.”
Dangers to Humans and the Environment:
At least some of the farmer groups interviewed don’t appear to understand the health and environmental risks involved with the fungicide- and herbicide-coated hybrids. Until Haiti Grassroots Watch intervened, some farmers were planning to grind up the toxic seed to use as chicken feed.
In one of our sites of investigation, the Farmers’ Store is actually a room in a community building that was unlocked and unstaffed on at least one Haiti Grassroots Watch visit. The building is located in a neighborhood full of families with children.
Inside the room, sacks of sorghum and maize seeds, bags of fertilizer and boxes of seeds are all jumbled into a huge pile. Some of the sacks are labeled, others are not. Several open bags from Monsanto/DeKalb in Brazil spill bright pink, chemically coated maize seeds onto the floor. Other maize seeds are in unlabeled white sacks which are punctured with holes… made by rats? Children? The farmers? That seed is covered with a white powder.
A half-empty bag of Pioneer seeds, also presumably hybrid, and presumably treated with fungicide and herbicide, sits open. Sunlight streams in through two windows, meaning that airborne Maxim XL, which coats the Monsanto/DeKalb seeds, and other airborne fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers could just as easily stream out. And into the lungs of nearby schoolchildren.
Syngenta, maker of Maxim XL, warns that skin and eye contact, and inhalation, are dangerous. “DO NOT use treated seed for animal or human consumption… DO NOT allow treated seed to contaminate grain or other seed intended for animal or human consumption. DO NOT feed treated seed, or otherwise expose, to wild or domestic birds,” one warning label reads.
Boxes of vegetable seed – presumably from Monsanto but not labeled as such – are jumbled about. Many of the seeds are treated with Thiram. In 2004, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that Thiram cannot be used in home gardens, on apples, or on playing fields. The 260-page report also detailed adverse health effects on humans, noting details like “the chronic toxicity profile for Thiram indicates that the liver, blood and urinary system are the target organs.” Thiram also has “effects” on foraging birds’ reproduction, and thus Thiram-coated seed should not be broadcast on the soil.
There are also bags of Mancozeb. The EPA also looked at Mancozeb recently (2005), saying the fungicide “poses some acute and chronic risks to birds and mammals” and that handlers need to wear full protective clothing, gloves and a “PF 5” respirator.
“Yes, all of this is dangerous. When you use Mancozeb, the farmer needs to wear a face mask, glasses and gloves,” the farmer agreed. “USAID doesn’t give them to us, but we buy them so they are available to the farmers.”
When Haiti Grassroots Watch asked the farmer where the gloves and masks were stored, he looked around under some of the seed sacks. “Well, maybe they ran out but we always buy them and have them here,” he said, hesitantly. “I don’t know exactly where they are.”
The farmer and the journalists thoroughly searched the room. There was no protective gear.
USAID/WINNER keeps a lid on its activities and tightly controls access to its work. Several WINNER employees told Haiti Grassroots Watch that before starting contracts, all staff had an agreement with Chemonics which prohibits their speaking with the media.
Haiti Grassroots Watch repeatedly requested an interview with USAID/WINNER agronomists and officials to follow up on the seed “gift.” Requests were repeatedly denied. In addition, Communications Director Maxwell Marcelin broadcast an email – obtained by Haiti Grassroots Watch – warning: “… a journalist is trying to do a report, including the project USAID/WINNER… I ask you to be very vigilant and, if the case presents itself, do not respond to any question, no matter how simple it seems… It is important to advise us immediately of all incidents, or requests, in order to help us better respond.”
 Email from Elizabeth Vancil to Emmanuel Prophete, Director of Seeds at the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, and others; released by the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, date unavailable.
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.