In Haiti, Golden Hopes in a Yellow Grain

GONAIVES, Haiti – 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 percent in 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.

“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 4 more

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