Haitian Farmers Leery of Monsanto's Largesse

Published on
by
Inter Press Service

Haitian Farmers Leery of Monsanto's Largesse

by
Peter Constantini

PÉTIONVILLE -  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.

More in: