PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Haiti's peasant farmers are organising and taking action to try and bring an end to the country's dependence on food imports, and to avert the prospect of looming famine.
In recent months, meetings and demonstrations held by peasant farmer groups and supported by a number of non-governmental organisations have been taking place across Haiti. The mobilisation is part of a fledgling political campaign to end the marginalisation of the rural population and to revamp the nation's neglected agricultural sector.
The new alliance is threatening to shake up the political scene in Haiti, and may even put up candidates for parliamentary elections scheduled for April.
The movement flexed its political muscle on the national stage for the first time on Dec. 12 when thousands of peasant farmers descended on the capital, Port-au-Prince, for a demonstration calling on the government to intervene to help them revive national agricultural production.
Prospéry Raymond, the Haiti country representative of the British development NGO Christian Aid, told IPS that the demonstration was "a very good way to show the authorities that the peasant organisations must be taken seriously".
Still, he doubts that the peasant alliance will put up candidates for forthcoming elections. "Although some peasant leaders have aspirations to elected office, many of the organisations are determined to preserve their autonomy and want to keep their distance from party politics," Raymond said.
However, he believes that the newly united peasant movement will be able to influence the elections by representing a potentially decisive voting bloc that the candidates will have to court in order to win office.
Until recently largely self-sufficient in food production, declining yields and a growing population have left Haiti ever more dependent on imported food. The dangers of this reliance were starkly revealed at the beginning of 2008 when the country experienced sharp price rises for food imports.
The poverty-stricken population suddenly found itself unable to afford to buy food staples such as rice, beans, or cooking oil. In April, anti-hunger riots erupted in towns across the country, and the government was forced out of office. In an effort to stem the riots, President René Préval abandoned neo-liberal policy dogma by intervening to subsidise the price of imported rice for a six-month period.
Then, in August and September, the country was hit by four tropical storms and hurricanes in the space of a few weeks. Flooding and mudslides claimed hundreds of lives, and houses and infrastructure were destroyed. In all parts of the country, crops, livestock, and agricultural land were washed away.
Haiti suffers more than other countries in the region from the effects of seasonal hurricanes because of large-scale deforestation and soil erosion.
Peasant organisers see the issues of environmental degradation and lack of support for the agricultural sector as closely linked. According to activists, the two primary aims of the mid-December demonstration were to get the state to prioritise environmental protection as part of a national development plan, and to force the government to take effective measures to re-launch national agricultural production.
The demonstration was called by an alliance of 10 peasant organisations, including the national movements, Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan and the Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay (MPNKP), as well as regional groups from the departments of the Grand'Anse, Nippes, the Central Plateau, and the southeast.
Despite an enormous exodus of people from the countryside to the towns in recent decades, some two-thirds of the population still depends on agriculture for a living. Yet no government has devoted any significant funds to revitalising the agricultural sector or restoring the environment.
A spokesperson for the peasant farmers' alliance, the MPNKP's Edith Germain Remonvil, said that while the high price of fuel and the knock-on costs of transport was a factor contributing to the rising cost of living in Haiti, the only way to definitively reduce the price of food items was by increasing national production.
Remonvil pleaded with the new government, headed by Prime Minister, Michèle Pierre-Louis, to prioritise agriculture in the budget for the current year, 2008-9. She criticised the government's existing medium-term economic development plans, based on the World Bank-sponsored, Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP).
"If the Pierre-Louis government continues to favour the plans prepared in the context of the PRSP , it is clear that nothing is really going to change," said Remonvil, adding that the PRSP was concocted by local officials working with a few organizations but without the participation of grassroots organizations across the country.
The peasant organisations' calls for a new development strategy prioritizing local agricultural production for local consumption have the backing of the National Association of Haitian Agronomists (ANDAH). In a New Year message, ANDAH implored the Pierre-Louis government to allocate more funds to agriculture, stating that "Only by increasing national agricultural production can the authorities start to combat the problems of a high cost of living and guarantee the population's food security."
Recalling the many "beautiful promises' made in the past about providing resources to benefit the poorest sectors of society, and that "nothing ever came of them", ANDAH called on Haitians to mobilize to build a new society. Central to the agronomists' vision of a new Haiti is an agrarian reform which, the association says, "must be realized in the framework of an overall policy capable of guaranteeing food security, as well as public services, in the furthest-flung parts of the country."
A number of non-governmental organizations - both local and international - are supporting the peasant farmer organizations' mobilization. One of them is the Spanish development agency, Oxfam Intermon.
Maurepas Jeudy, Oxfam Intermon's director in Haiti, blames neo-liberal policies for the country's current food crisis. He says, "Since 1986 successive governments have applied neo-liberal policies that have caused considerable damage. Before 1986 local rice production met 80% of national demand, but today more than 80% of rice consumed is imported. It is the same with maize, beans and chicken eggs."
Another civil society organisation working closely in support of the peasant farmers' mobilisation is the Haitian Platform to Advocate for an Alternative Development (PAPDA). The umbrella grouping of various NGOs has been helping bring different peasant groups together to agree on demands and to organise a strategy to realise them.
For example, on Dec. 23, in the central Artibonite town of Petite Rivière de l'Artibonite, the PAPDA helped convene members of local peasant organisations for a public meeting and demonstration calling for agrarian reform.
The PAPDA's Camille Chalmers says that the world economic crisis will have a deadly impact on Haiti. He believes that "If the economic policy that we have today does not change, and if we continue on the same track of neo-liberalism imposed by Washington and the international financial institutions, we will experience a continuous break-down and collapse. We will experience even more serious levels of poverty."
While predicting that, in this context, a new wave of social protest in Haiti is inevitable, Chalmers admits that at present the country's social movement is ill-prepared to take advantage of a popular rejection of the status quo.
However, he sees the new peasant farmers' alliance as an important step in the right direction.
"A collection of different peasant movements are trying to build a common platform," he said. "Steps are being taken to achieve a sufficiently strong social movement to present different alternatives and to try to influence the situation, both in changing what is done in economic policy, as well as in the context of the forthcoming senatorial elections and the presidential elections in 2011."