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Haiti hit by price of imported rice

U.S. product collapsed the local market years ago.

BOKOZEL, Haiti - Although Haitians can no longer afford the imported rice that now dominates their diet, Josiane Desjardin, a subsistence rice farmer, sees little hope of reviving the domestic crop that once was abundant in the fertile estuary of the Artibonite River.

There's no turning back the clock, farmers say dejectedly, in a countryside ravaged by floods, soil erosion, misguided trade policy and ongoing land-ownership disputes.

Subsidized U.S. rice began flooding in 30 years ago, It was so cheap that Haitians began eating it instead of the corn, sweet potatoes, cassava and domestic rice that had sprouted from plains and mountainsides from the colonial era to the late 1980s.

"Miami rice," as Haitians call the U.S. import, drove local rice farmers out of business and incited a rural exodus that swelled the slums of Port-au-Prince.

Today, more than 70 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, and the U.S. rice that is the staple of their diet has doubled in price in little more than a year.

Hungry people rioted in the capital last month, leaving at least six dead by the time President Rene Preval restored calm by announcing that foreign aid and subsidies would lower the price of a 110-pound bag of rice to $43 from $51.

But importers and economists warn that those supports are unsustainable and predict further unrest in this country, the poorest in the Americas, when the subsidies run out in late summer. Then, based on price trends, the same sack will cost $70.

The answer, experts say, is revitalizing domestic production and returning to more traditional foods.

Rice requires large quantities of water and fertilizer, but the former is in short supply because of recent droughts and neglected irrigation canals, and the latter is soaring in cost.

Yet even if Desjardin could afford to invest her meager $300 proceeds from the last year's harvest in expansion, she has heard speculation about impending land redistribution and worries that the 1.25-acre plot she rents could be seized by the state.

"No one knows what will happen to us," Desjardin, 50, said of the 300 or so families that rent land from 78-year-old Edouard Vieux.

Vieux is a sixth-generation descendant of a slave general who was awarded more than 12,000 acres for his role in the victorious battle that led to Haiti's independence from France in 1804.

Many Artibonite sharecroppers and tenants were displaced a dozen years ago when Preval, during his previous term as president, oversaw a land reform that took the property of large estate owners like Vieux and carved them into tiny plots for thousands of peasants.

But the recipients were not provided with tools, fertilizer, seeds or transportation, so they couldn't grow the crops the landlords had earlier financed.

Never given legal title, the idle peasants were expelled when owners returned to reclaim their lands after a February 2004 rebellion drove then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile.

Of the 12 or 13 bags Desjardin produces each year, she needs to keep eight to feed herself and the families of her four jobless children.

The remaining four or five bags bring just enough to pay the 2,000-gourde (about $52) annual rent, buy fertilizer and pay the local miller.

In the three decades since the United States began selling subsidized rice in Haiti, consumption has doubled to 400,000 metric tons a year, forcing Haiti to import three-quarters of its need.

Those trying to feed Haiti's poor lament the dependence on costly imports.

"It's planting season now, and some people are so desperate they are eating their seeds," said John Wesley Charles, Haiti director for the relief group World Vision.