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Why Haiti is Poor (II)

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Two months ago, I was in the rugged hills near Cap Rouge in southern Haiti, with my friend of 15 years, the extraordinary guide Milfort Bruno. I was there to learn more about why Haiti’s coffee exports, which had once been significant and high-quality, had collapsed over the past couple of decades.
Alongside the rocky dirt road, we met several members of the Marcelin family, who stood politely in their muddy clothes and rubber boots to answer our questions. After a few minutes, one of the family, Pierre, who was in his late 40s and wearing a yellow baseball cap, emerged as their informal spokesman. He talked to us in clear sentences and paragraphs, pausing now and then to glance around the group, inviting them to confirm or add to his explanation.
As recently as 1949, Haiti had been the third-largest coffee exporter in the world, and the beans had been the main source of the foreign exchange the country needed to develop. Pierre Marcelin gestured out into the surrounding trees as dusk fell, and said: “There are still some coffee bushes out there. But we don’t bother harvesting them anymore.”
The Marcelins offered a comprehensive explanation, with several features. They got quietly but particularly angry when they reached one of their points. “We lost our pigs,” they said, and Milfort and I looked at each other with immediate understanding.
In the early 1980s, African Swine Fever was detected in Haiti, and the United States and other international aid agencies spent $23 million to eradicate nearly 1 million black Creole pigs. But Haitians, and others, still question whether the mass slaughter was necessary. The Haitian black pigs had survived for 500 years and become resistant to disease, and by the time the killing started in 1982 the local pigs had already stopped dying. Critics still argue that the United States was truly only concerned about protecting its own pig industry.
The destruction was devastating to millions of poor rural Haitians. One agronomist estimated the loss at $600 million – in a country where people are lucky to earn a few hundred dollars a year. Compensation was never adequate, and the dictatorship of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier passed little of it along to people like the Marcelins anyway. Creole pigs had been scavengers. The new replacement pigs from Iowa needed special food and medicine, far beyond what people like the Marcelins could afford. They did have a few of the newer pigs up the road – they offered to show us – but they complained the new animals were weak and prone to disease.
Creole pigs had also been a source of savings, which steadily appreciated as the pigs grew. All over the third world, farm animals serve the same function as a store of value. The mass pig slaughter was roughly equivalent to the collapse of American banks in the early 1930s, before federal deposit insurance, which cost many of our grandparents their life savings.
The destruction of the Creole pigs also had reduced coffee production, the Marcelins explained. They had used pig droppings, high in nitrogen, to fertilize their crops. The imported fertilizer they would need today costs 1000 gourds (about $25) a sack, which they cannot afford.
But the lack of organic fertilizer was only a part of the Marcelins’ explanation. In a coming post, we will return to their analysis.

This post follows Part I.

James North
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