Peter Costantini, June 21, 2010, IPS News Agency
Photo: Haitian small farmers demonstrate against Monsanto, Courtesy of La Via Campesina
PÉTIONVILLE, Jun 21, 2010 (IPS) - Haitian farmers are worried that giant transnational corporations like Monsanto are attempting to gain a larger foothold in the local economy under the guise of earthquake relief and rebuilding.
"Seeds represent a kind of right to life," peasant leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste told IPS. "That's why we have a problem today with Monsanto and all the multinationals who sell seeds. Seeds and water are the common patrimony of humanity."
Earlier this month, in the central square of Hinche, an agricultural town in Haiti's Plateau Central region, a mass of small farmers wearing red shirts and straw hats burned a symbolic quantity of hybrid corn seed donated to Haiti by the U.S. agricultural-technology giant.
They called on farmers to burn any Monsanto seeds already distributed, and demanded that the government reject further shipments.
The actions in Hinche (pronounced "ansh") were spearheaded by the Mouvman Peyizan Papay, a regional peasant movement that claims 50,000 members, and the national coalition of some 200,000 members to which it belongs. Despite divisions among Haitian peasant organisations, several of the most important groups joined together to participate.
Sowing hybrid seeds, reaping a controversy
Some Haitian agricultural leaders and experts question the economic and social appropriateness of the industrial-agriculture model, including imported hybrid seeds, for Haitian small farmers.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with three- quarters of its population surviving on US$ 2 a day or less and 58 percent malnourished. Its economy remains heavily agricultural, with about two- thirds of Haitians dependent on agriculture for their living. But only 28 percent of the gross domestic product is generated by farming.
According to Volny Paultre, chief agronomist in Haiti for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, most of the million-odd farms in Haiti are tiny. "Most farming here is done with hardly any money or access to credit," Paultre told IPS in a recent interview, and most small farmers function with very low levels of technology.
Among the country's greatest needs are reform of land tenure and agrarian finance, he said, along with better infrastructure to support agricultural development.
Hybrid seeds are not widely used today in Haiti, Monsanto recognised in a blog post. But company spokesman Darren Wallis said in an e-mail to IPS that the hybrid seeds produced a higher yield per plant, and had been used for decades in the neighbouring Dominican Republic as well as in the past in Haiti.
Haitian agronomist Bazelais Jean-Baptiste sees the issue differently: "The foundation for Haiti's food sovereignty is the ability of peasants to save seeds from one growing season to the next. The hybrid crops that Monsanto is introducing do not produce seeds that can be saved for the next season, therefore peasants who use them would be forced to somehow buy more seeds each season."
Some of the seeds are also treated with chemical pesticides and fungicides that are considered highly toxic by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Given the lack of experience with agricultural chemicals and low level of literacy, critics say, these seeds could pose risks for the farm families who use them.
Jean-Baptiste has led the MPP since 1973 and plays a major role in the international peasant movement.
"Our primary goal is to defend peasant agriculture," he said, "an organic agriculture that respects the environment and fights against its degradation. We defend native seeds and the rights of peasants on their land."
The international peasant movement advocates for "food sovereignty", Jean-Baptiste emphasised, the right of each country to define its agricultural policy, of communities to decide what to produce, and of consumers to know that the products they consume are healthy.
"We work with indigenous groups as well, and with them we believe that the earth has rights that we must respect, just as people have rights," he said.
The actions against Monsanto also were targeted "against the policies of the government that don't help peasants, but rather accept products that poison the environment, kill biodiversity and destroy family, peasant agriculture," he contended.
According to Monsanto, 130 tonnes of hybrid corn and vegetable seed out of a promised 475 tonnes have been sent so far, with the first shipment arriving in Haiti during the first week of May. The remaining 345 tonnes, which will be hybrid corn seed, are to be delivered over the coming 12 months.
The company stressed in a news release that the seeds are not genetically modified, as some early reports stated, but acknowledged that some seeds are coated with fungicides and pesticides.
Monsanto consulted with the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture on what seeds would be acceptable to Haitian farmers and well-suited for Haitian conditions, Darren Wallis, a spokesman for the firm, told IPS in an e-mail.
A programme of the U.S. government's Agency for International Development, the Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources, and the non-profit Earth Institute will distribute the seeds along with inputs such as fertilisers and provide technical support, Monsanto said.
WINNER describes itself as "a 127-million-dollar project … which aims to improve the living conditions of the rural populations in Haïti".
But speakers at the Jun. 4 rally saw the project in a different light, accusing President René Préval of "collusion with imperialism" and "selling off the national patrimony".
Although Jean-Baptiste was a key architect of the election of Préval to his first term in 1995, the peasant leader now says bitterly of the politician: "He has simply betrayed the ideas that we stood for."
Jean-Baptiste sees the seed donation by Monsanto as a beachhead in a battle between Haitian popular organisations and the U.S. and European transnational corporations who, he says, dominate the Haitian government and the reconstruction effort.
"The government is selling off the country or giving it away as a gift. Not only is Monsanto trying to get in, but they're talking about Coca Cola coming in to plant mangoes. The Haitian people are fighting to make sure that all the generous international aid will be channeled into genuine programmes of sustainable development."
Mistrust of the intentions of transnational corporations and the United States government is strong among many Haitians and based on a long history. The square in Hinche where the demonstration took place is named after Charlemagne Péralte, the leader of a peasant uprising against the occupation of Haiti by the U.S. Marines, which lasted from 1915 until 1934.
The history of damage to Haitian farmers by foreign aid is also long and painful.
In the 1980s, Creole pigs were almost completely eradicated under heavy pressure from the Ronald Reagan administration. The animals were once known as "the savings bank of the Haitian peasant", and were bred over centuries to thrive in the Haitian environment.
An epidemic of African Swine Flu that began in the neighbouring Dominican Republic was killing pigs, and U.S. authorities feared that it could spread to North America. Although some Haitian organisations proposed alternatives for controlling the disease, the Duvalier dictatorship violently imposed the will of the U.S. in the face of resistance by many Haitian farmers.
The variety of pig sent from the U.S. as a replacement was much less hardy and required expensive inputs and facilities. Virtually none survived. Many Haitian families were never compensated and suffered a crippling blow to their livelihood, in some cases having to pull their children out of school, according to Grassroots International, a U.S. non-governmental organisation.
The group has been working with Haitian peasant groups since 1997 to repopulate Creole pigs across Haiti.
Testifying before the U.S. Senate in March, former President Bill Clinton offered a notable apology for the policies of his administration towards Haitian agriculture. He lamented that forcing Haiti to lower tariffs on subsidised U.S. rice may have helped rice farmers in his home state of Arkansas, but destroyed the capacity of Haitian rice farmers to feed their country.
Calling his policy a "devil's bargain," he said: "We should have continued to work to help them [Haitian rice farmers] be self-sufficient in agriculture."
Chavannes Jean-Baptiste traveled to the U.S. and the United Nations from Jun. 11 to 14 for meetings to discuss the Monsanto donation and alternatives for Haitian agriculture proposed by Haitian peasants.
Peter Costantini blogs at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/crossover-dreams. He spent the month of May in Haiti.