Monsanto 'charity' comes to Haitian farmers

| July 15, 2010

Despite the inexcusable stalling and siphoning off of aid to Haiti six months after the devastating earthquake, the people of Haiti are currently fighting the charity of one overly eager corporation: Monsanto. In a seemingly generous offer, the corporation donated over 470 tons of hybrid corn and vegetable seeds to be distributed through USAID and the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture. The only problem is that Monsanto and USAID are determined to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

The problem in Haiti is not one of seeds. There is no shortage of them in Haiti. The problem is of what the seeds represent. Jean Baptiste Chavannes, the leader of the Mouvman Peyizan Papay, (the Papay Peasant Movement or MPP) views the seeds as a pivotal issue in the power relations between Haitian popular organizations and powerful multinational corporations. What is being touted as charity by Monsanto and USAID is being met by the farmers with well deserved mistrust. Chavannes did not mince words about the impact this donation will have on Haiti when he stated that: "If people start sending us hybrid seeds that's the end of Haitian agriculture."

Chavannes helped to organize the march to protest the arrival of the seeds on June 4th, where over 10,000 farmers were encouraged to burn the donated seeds and pressure the government to refuse the shipments of any more seeds. The move was a brave and hugely symbolic form of protest, highlighting the feeling that Monsanto is taking advantage of the earthquake to introduce large-scale industrial agriculture to Haiti -- a nation where two-thirds of the population is dependent on agriculture for a living.

For hundreds of years Haitian farmers have traditionally collected, saved and shared their seeds -- and over time have developed locally adapted crops which are not dependant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. With the introduction of Monsanto's products into Haiti all of that will change. Unlike traditional seeds, Monsanto's seeds possess the "terminator gene" and do not reproduce and will force farmers to continually buy new seeds every growing season. This arrangement will greatly increase the farmer's dependence on foreign corporations, as they will be extremely vulnerable to crushing debt brought forth by the necessary importation of fertilizer and pesticides.

With stories of food riots, malnutrition and mud cakes dominating headlines worldwide, perhaps the most often ignored problem facing Haitian agriculture is one of foreign intervention in the domestic market. This intervention funnels money out of rural Haiti and into the bank accounts of corporations -- crippling Haiti's ability to reinvest in infrastructure or diversification efforts. For example, foreign intervention has already decimated local rice production and eradicated the Creole pig, both vital components of Haitian self sufficiency. Up until the 1980s Haiti was able to feed itself, growing enough rice, beans, corn, sweet potatoes, and cassava. However in early 1986 Haiti began to liberalize its economy by lowering tariffs and introduction neoliberal reforms which would bring about the collapse of Haitian rice production.

In 1980, Haiti imported 16,000 metric tons of rice, and in 2009 the nation imported 340,000 tons -- a 21-fold increase in 30 years. By the time of the earthquake Haiti was importing 51 per cent of its foodstuffs and 80 per cent of its rice. Haiti is now the 5th largest importer of American grown rice. This was only natural according to Bill Reed of the Arkansas-based Riceland exporters as "Haiti doesn't have the land nor the climate . . . to produce enough rice. The productivity of U.S. farmers helps feed countries which cannot feed themselves."

Monsanto was brought into Haiti through USAID's WINNER (Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources) program. The self stated goal of WINNER is to establish an environment of "agricultural intensification" which will bring about food security throughout Haiti. Food security is a problem in Haiti as the World Food Program estimates that over one-third of the population or three million people are chronically hungry -- however a larger problem is that of food sovereignty.

Whereas food security looks to ensure that food is available to everyone, Food sovereignty believes that the issues of what food is produced, how it is produced and at what scale it is produced are all equally important. Food sovereignty calls for the respect bio-diversity, the cultivation of culturally appropriate foods in domestic markets, halting the process of industrialization, providing dignified prices to farmers and the abolition of all direct and indirect agricultural export aids.

When discussing the importance of food sovereignty in Haiti, Jean Baptiste Chavannes, the leader of the MPP stated: "Peoples have a right to choose their agricultural policy, what to farm and how to farm it, or they will always be dependent." Bazelais Jean-Baptiste, an agronomist from the MPP who is currently directing the Seeds for Haiti project in New York City says that: "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."

When discussing the supposed lessons learned from previous interference in Haitian agriculture the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, former President Bill Clinton said: "Every time we spend a dollar in Haiti from now on we have to ask ourselves, 'Does this have a long-term return? Are we helping them become more self-sufficient?'" It appears that Clinton's $127 million dollar question was never asked to those involved in the WINNER program. When speaking of WINNER, USAID's Christopher Abrams bluntly stated that "The goal is not self-sufficiency."

What has become strikingly clear from the case of Monsanto's involvement in Haiti is this is another example of self-serving aid, where the aid money given to Haiti is benefiting corporations in the donor nations and do little for the people in need. Monsanto is exploiting the vulnerability caused by the earthquake to enter Haitian agriculture through a Trojan horse of generosity and transform it according to its own interests. If USAID and the Haitian government truly wanted to help the Haitian farmers they would support initiatives put forward by popular organizations which look to develop sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty in an effort to build self sufficiency -- not dependency.

Kevin Edmonds is a graduate student at McMaster University's Institute for Globalization and the Human Condition.

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