By Aida Alami, U.S. News & World Report, April 9, 2018
As the sun starts to set on Haiti's most fertile valley, a silent group of women sweeps grains of newly harvested rice into large, yellow mounds, unfazed by the acrid smoke of nearby wood fires.
From there, the rice is placed in barrels, where it will be cleaned over those fires. Then, in a small back room on a winter afternoon, it will be packed in bags and shipped from this mill in west-central Haiti's Artibonite Valley, ending up in the kitchens of Haitian expatriates and other discriminating cooks across the United States.
This was once a common scene in Haiti. Now it's a rarity. A few decades ago, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice, a crop so important here that the U.N. estimates it makes up about a quarter of people's daily diet. It even grew enough to export. But production collapsed after the U.S. and international lenders forced the country to dramatically lower tariffs that protected local farmers, from 50 percent to 3 percentin the last three decades.
A quarter-century later, about 80 percent of Haiti's rice is imported, and the country is a major market for U.S. exporters. Faced with cheap imports, the country's dire poverty, natural disasters, lack of investment and collapsing infrastructure, production is still dropping in Haiti despite government efforts to halt the slide. Last year, the government reported a rise and a subsequent drop because of bad weather.
Some Haitian entrepreneurs say there is money to be made growing rice. Skeptics, however, say hopes to resurrect the rice industry are misplaced and, with too few resources and little international support, represent the challenges that many poor, underdeveloped countries face in turning their economies around.
Fabias Voltaire, 37, one Haitian trying to boost rice production, was able to reach an agreement to process his rice at a cooperative that is funded by the aid group Oxfam. He said there is a strong foreign demand for high-quality organic rice. It may cost more, but many regard it as healthier and better-tasting than American varieties. Plus, Haitian émigrés in the States love it, he says: "Haitians are … very sentimental about eating rice from home."
In 2015, Voltaire and two cousins launched Caribbean Grains LLC. Three years later, they are shipping to Florida, Alabama and other U.S. states.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. About three-quarters of its 11 million people live on less than $2 a day and about half the population lives in rural settings. In 2010, following a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that devastated the country, former U.S. President Bill Clinton publicly apologized for forcing Haiti to drop its import tariffs and damaging the economy.
A worker at the Caribbean Grains production facility shows off the production of Haiti’s most fertile region, the Artibonite Valley. Experts say the government could dramatically improve yields by fixing the area’s irrigation canals. (JEAN MARC HERVÉ ABÉLARD/ROUND EARTH MEDIA)
"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked," said Clinton at the time, according to news reports. "It was a mistake."
Since then, hurricanes Sandy in 2012 and Matthew in 2016 cost Haiti hundreds of millions in agricultural losses, making it even harder to recover.
Jovenel Moise, who became Haiti's president in February 2017, has an agricultural background and pledged to relaunch the industry by fixing irrigation canals, financing infrastructure projects and other initiatives. By May 2017, the government had unveiled its program "La Caravane du Changement" – The Caravan of Change – to fund such infrastructure repairs. Although government estimates of the program's cost are difficult to obtain, Haitian news media reports say $55 million was spent in 2017 to repair the country's agriculture infrastructure.
Still, the challenges to boosting the country's rice industry are great. Production costs are high, and farmers have almost no access to loans or insurance to protect them from the ravages of insects and plant diseases.
The facts on the ground keep skepticism high that the initiatives will substantially boost rice production. Thousands of acres in the Artibonite Valley are waterlogged, making them prone to disease, especially around the time of harvests. Other parts of the valley aren't getting enough water.
Travis J. Lybbert, an economist and professor at the University of California-Davis who has done extensive research in the region, says the government's focus on better irrigation could make a big impact on rice production.
"It is relatively easy to make this happen," he says, adding that it would be much harder to provide access to inputs such as seed and fertilizer or create a better market for farm products.
The government can prioritize spending on agriculture without a lot of scrutiny, shortchanging other sectors of the economy in a country that is in desperate need of just about everything.
"These are very important and heavy costs that are easy to sweep under the rug as many other projects get delayed," Lybbert adds. "That could be a real drag on development in other parts of the country."
Looking out over a nearly dry river and irrigation canals that need to be cleaned and rebuilt, Agriculture Ministry representative Renaud Gene says Haiti has the political will to fix the problem, but not the means.
"There is a serious problem of water management, and it requires a lot of investments," he says.
The government has been fixing roads and canals but doesn't have the resources to make dramatic improvements. Instead of feeding Haitians in need with their own excess production, Gene says rich countries could assist Haiti more by helping develop its infrastructure, and then buying the rice from Haitian farmers to distribute.
In contrast with Voltaire, many in the region say a long history of failure leaves them pessimistic that anything will change. They regard the government initiative as at best populist and naïve. While not questioning the president's intentions, many simply aren't optimistic about the feasibility of breaking through the obstacles that exist.
"Jovenel is struggling like a poor devil but I am not sure where he's going," says Franklin Benjamin, an engineer and rice producer who has dedicated his career to finding ways to supply Haitians with locally produced rice.
For decades, attempts to develop the sector have failed, he says, because farmers never get the incentives and solid support system they need.
"Haiti doesn't interest Haitians. They are all looking to get a visa to go somewhere where they are despised," he adds. "There is still a hope, but we will be disappointed like always."
In the midst of such pessimism, Voltaire hopes that his success might inspire the next entrepreneur. And he has even bigger dreams.
"I want to create an agricultural bank for farmers," he says. "The objective is to make Haiti the economic capital of the Caribbean."
He splits his time between West Palm Beach, Florida, and Haiti and still plans to continue growing his business despite the challenges. He says he spent $10,000 to fix the irrigation canals he needed for his own production.
On his farm, Voltaire's workers take a pause to laugh and joke a bit around a broken-down tractor. The fact that the rice mill exists at all is a small miracle.
Additional reporting by Jean Pharès Jérôme. This story was produced in collaboration withRound Earth Media.
Posted April 10, 2018