Haiti provides a preview of what's in store for the Dominican Republic: the real price of free trade.
Rice, beans, and chicken. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Haitians eat this every day – if they can afford it – and as far as I could tell the taste is identical to the “Dominican flag”. Plantains and coffee are also daily favorites
I am still researching other typical Haitian dishes and will be serving them up to you in a future article. First though, I am writing about free trade, a timely topic for us here in the DR too. After spending a couple of weeks in Haiti I discovered that the subject of food usually leads in to a discussion about cheap food imports and how they have pushed Haitian farmers out of business.
This is not peculiar to Haiti, though it could be argued that as the poorest nation in the Americas Haiti has fewer bargaining chips at its disposal when discussion terms of trade. The Haitian experience also has lessons for us here in the DR, embarking as we are on the unknown journey known as DR-CAFTA, the free trade agreement between the US, the Dominican Republic and the Central American nations.
In the name of free trade, Haiti has lost much of its traditional crops like rice, beans, poultry and even peanuts. This happens when tariffs and import barriers are lifted, meaning that large exporters such as the United States are able to sell cheaper rice, beans and chicken to countries like Haiti. Local farmers can’t compete – they are producing on a smaller scale and their costs are too high – so they simply stop production.
Good news for the Haitian consumer, or is it? In some cases the prices are kept artificially low by importers until the local competition throws in the towel, and then the prices go up. No winners then, at least not in Haiti.
A friend in Port-au-Prince explained to me that Haitian cooks still prefer the taste and quality of home-grown beans, so much so that imported beans are often sold masquerading as Haitian beans. It is easy to tell the difference, apparently: the local beans have a less uniform appearance.
Rice though is another matter. Everyone agrees that imported rice tastes better than the local variety. The tragedy is that as a result the relatively prosperous agricultural regions like the Artibonite Valley are now being abandoned by farmers who are no longer able to make their living from the land. Traditionally these were the areas that produced fewest migrants. The result? More people crowding into the slums of Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien, or taking their chances on the high seas or crossing the Dominican border. Is it really worth it?
Most chicken in Haiti is imported from the US, and this is an interesting cultural and gastronomic phenomenon. Like Dominicans, Haitians prefer chicken legs, while these are shunned by the north American consumer in favor of white meat. As a result there is a thriving export market for cheap American chicken legs, and happy consumers in Haiti. The farmers there aren’t so happy, though. The same is planned for the DR where there still is a poultry industry, and chicken farmers in the DR are very concerned about what lies in store for them.
A lot of food in Haiti comes from our side of the border. The other day I asked a market trader who was selling eggs in the northern city of Cap Haitien where she kept her chickens. Nowhere, she said. These eggs are Dominican. She makes a weekly journey lasting several hours over bumpy roads to the Dominican border to buy eggs to sell in the market. Plantains too are imported from the DR, as is sugar and pasta. Curiously, spaghetti is a common breakfast food in Haiti.
The only ray of hope I can mention is the case of the Haitian coffee farmers. A network of cooperatives in the north and north east of Haiti have joined together, processing and selling their organic crop to the European Fair Trade market. Coffee production not only brings employment and prosperity to poor rural communities, it also stops the flow of migration to the cities and abroad, and results in reforestation in a country which has lost almost all its tree cover to logging and charcoal production. Coffee needs to be grown in shade, so the farmers plant trees across the mountains where coffee is cultivated.
Unfortunately, the coffee growers are the exception. It’s all very well touting the benefits of free trade, but under these conditions, when this is the effect, how are countries like Haiti expected to be able to haul themselves out of poverty, let alone develop?