Hunger Plagues Haiti and the World
by Stephen Lendman
Consumers in rich countries feel it in
supermarkets but in the world's poorest ones people are starving.
The reason - soaring food prices, and it's triggered riots around
the world in places like Mexico, Indonesia, Yemen, the Philippines,
Cambodia, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Guinea, Mauritania, Egypt,
Cameroon, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Peru, Bolivia
and Haiti that was once nearly food self-sufficient but now relies
on imports for most of its supply and (like other food-importing
countries) is at the mercy of agribusiness.
Wheat shortages in Peru are acute enough
to have the military make bread with potato flour (a native crop).
In Pakistan, thousands of troops guard trucks carrying wheat and
flour. In Thailand, rice farmers take shifts staying awake nights
guarding their fields from thieves. The crop's price has about
doubled in recent months, it's the staple for half or more of
the world's population, but rising prices and fearing scarcity
have prompted some of the world's largest producers to export
less - Thailand (the world's largest exporter), Vietnam, India,
Egypt, Cambodia with others likely to follow as world output lags
demand. Producers of other grains are doing the same like Argentina,
Kazakhstan and China. The less they export, the higher prices
Other factors are high oil prices and
transportation costs, growing demand, commodity speculation, pests
in southeast Asia, a 10 year Australian drought, floods in Bangladesh
and elsewhere, a 45 day cold snap in China, and other natural
but mostly manipulated factors like crop diversion for biofuels
have combined to create a growing world crisis with more on this
below. It's at the same time millions of Chinese and Indians have
higher incomes, are changing their eating habits, and are consuming
more meat, chicken and other animal products that place huge demands
on grains to produce.
Here's a UK April 8 Times online snapshot
of the situation in parts of Asia:
-- Filipino farmers caught hoarding rice
risk a life in jail sentence for "economic sabotage;"
-- thousands of (Jakarta) Indonesian soya
bean cake makers are striking against the destruction of their
-- once food self-sufficient countries
like Japan and South Korea are reacting "bitterly (as) the
world's food stocks-to-consumption ratio plunges to an all-time
-- India no longer can export millions
of tons of rice; instead it's forced to have a "special strategic
food reserve on top of its existing wheat and rice stockpiles;"
-- Thailand is the world's largest rice
producer; its price rose 50% in the past month;
-- countries like the Philippines and
Sri Lanka are scrambling for secure rice supplies; they and other
Asian countries are struggling to cope with soaring prices and
-- overall, rice is the staple food for
three billion people; one-third of them survive on less than $1
a day and are "food insecure;" it means they may starve
to death without aid.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization
(FAO) reported that worldwide food costs rose almost 40% in 2007
while grains spiked 42% and dairy prices nearly 80%. The World
Bank said food prices are up 83% since 2005. As of December, it
caused 37 countries to face food crises and 20 to impose price
controls in response.
It also affected aid agencies like the
UN's World Food Program (WFP). Because of soaring food and energy
costs, it sent an urgent appeal to donors on March 20 to help
fill a $500 million resource gap for its work. Since then, food
prices increased another 20% and show no signs of abating. For
the world's poor, like the people of Haiti, things are desperate,
people can't afford food, they scratch by any way they can, but
many are starving and don't make it.
Haiti - the World Hunger Poster Child
The Haitain crisis is so extreme it forces
people to eat (non-food) mud cookies (called "pica")
to relieve hunger. It's a desperate Haitian remedy made from dried
yellow dirt from the country's central plateau for those who can
afford it. It's not free. In Cite Soleil's crowded slums, people
use a combination of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening for a
typical meal when it's all they can afford. A Port-au-Prince AP
reporter sampled it. He said it had "a smooth consistency
(but it) sucked all the moisture out of (my) mouth as soon as
it touched (my) tongue. For hours (afterwards), an unpleasant
taste of dirt lingered." Worse is how it harms human health.
A mud cookie diet causes severe malnutrition, intestinal distress,
and other deleterious effects from potentially deadly toxins and
Another problem is the cost. This stomach-filler
isn't free. Haitians have to buy it, and "edible clay"
prices are rising - by almost $1.50 in the past year. It now costs
about $5 to make 100 cookies (about 5 cents each), it's cheaper
than food, but many Haitians can't afford it:
-- 80% of them are impoverished in the
hemisphere's poorest country and one of the world's poorest;
-- unemployment is rampant, and two-thirds
or more of workers have only sporadic jobs; and
-- those with them earn 11 to 12 cents
an hour; the country's official minimum wage is $1.80 a day, but
IMF figures show 55% of employed Haitians receive only 44 cents
daily, an impossible amount to live on.
Here's what it's like for poor Haitians.
They have large families, live in cardboard and tin homes, there's
no running water and little or no electricity, and life inside
and around them is horrific. Bed sheets can be thick with flies,
there's no sanitation, and outside garbage is everywhere. Children
are always hungry, there's never enough food, often it's for one
meal a day, illness and disease are common, life expectancy very
low, and so-called Blue Helmet "peacekeeper" and gang
violence plague communities like Port-au-Prince's Cite Soleil.
Now with a food crisis, Haitians are in
the streets over prices for essentials that tripled in the past
year and a president, prime minister and government doing practically
nothing about it. For days, they were everywhere, throughout the
country, and numbered in the thousands. They protested in Port-au-Prince,
carried empty plates to signify their plight, smashed windows,
set buildings and cars alight, looted shops, looked for food,
tried to storm the presidential palace, shouted "we are hungry,"
and demanded President Rene Preval resign.
UN Blue Helmets (MINUSTAH) responded viciously
the way they always do against peaceful or protest demonstrations.
They shot and killed at least five Haitians (some reports say
more), wounded many others, and that was just in downtown Port-au-Prince.
In Les Cayes (Haiti's third largest city)
in the southwest, demonstrators stormed and tried to burn the
local MINUSTAH offices. Others barricaded streets, looked for
food, and shouted "Down with the high cost of living."
Similar protests went on throughout the country:
-- in northern cities like Cap-Haitien
-- Jacmel in the south;
-- Jeremie in the southwest where at least
two deaths were reported; and
-- smaller towns like Petit Goave, Miragoane,
Aquin, Cavaillon, Saint-Jean du Sud, Leogane, Vialet, Anse-a-Veau
It's a familiar pattern in Haiti. Anger
over injustice builds and then explodes with Haitians reacting
in the streets en masse against intolerable conditions that are
compounded by a repressive and hated UN occupation. It's there
to protect privilege, not secure peace. It's the first time ever
that the UN Security Council authorized so-called "peacekeepers"
to enforce a coup d'etat against a democratically elected president
(by a 92% majority).
Haiti's current president can't deal with
the situation and has gone along with the state of things. He's
been ineffective since his February 2006 reelection, hasn't alleviated
the present crisis, instead ordered protests to stop, and here's
how he put it in a shameful April 9 televised address: "The
demonstrations and destruction won't make the prices go down or
resolve the country's problems. On the contrary, this can make
the misery grow and prevent investment in the country" that,
of course, does nothing for most Haitians and Preval knows it.
After a week of protests, an uneasy calm
followed, but things can break out any time without relief that's
not forthcoming beyond some far too small proposed measures. Dismissively,
Preval's prime minister, Jacques Edouard Alexis, blamed the problem
on "global forces" and the high cost of oil saying there's
no "quick fix," case closed. He also claimed the protests
were manipulated by provocateurs, including angry drugs dealers
reacting to a supposed closure of one of their transshipment points.
Alexis is now out, elitists debate over
who'll replace him, Haitians in the meantime are starving, the
IMF keeps extracting $1 million a week in mandated tribute to
the rich, and only countries like Cuba (training Haitians to be
doctors) and Venezuela (donating money, cheap oil, and over 600
tons of food aid sent April 13, more than first reported) seem
to care. Chavez cares about all Latin America and last year donated
about $8.8 billion in aid or four times the amount America provides
For its part, the World Bank pathetically
plans $10 million in "emergency aid" for a country with
over eight million starving people. It also plans to double its
African agricultural lending next year to $800 million and thus
make a bad situation worse. It'll go to hugely indebted nations,
unable to help feed their people as a consequence, and World Bank
policy always is opposite of what these countries need.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon barely
commented, made merely pro forma statements about the crisis and
its seriousness, was as dismissive as Alexis, offered no remedial
aid, is as uncaring as World Bank officials, and never forgets
that his bosses are in Washington. Instead of doing his job and
helping, he called on Haiti's leaders to restore stability because
the country's security is threatened. Starving poor people aren't
his concern. Let 'em eat mud cookies.
That's apparently Rene Preval's solution
as well. Belatedly (on April 12), he announced a plan to cut rice
prices 15%. It will do nothing to relieve the crisis, and Reuters
(on April 15) reported that vendors still demand the higher price
for supplies already in stock. It provoked new clashes on the
streets, Haitians continue to starve, and "government officials
were not immediately available for comment."
Raj Patel's new book explains the state
of things today. It's titled "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden
Battle for the World Food System." In an April 14 statement,
he said: "What's happening in Haiti is an augury to the rest
of the developing world. Haiti is the poster child of an economy
that liberalized its agricultural economy and removed the social
safety nets for the poor...." Two conditions create food
-- "price shocks (and) modern development
policies" (tariffs, corporate subsidies, grain reserve policies)
make food unaffordable for many millions; and
-- "riots (then) happen when there
are no other ways (to make) powerful people listen...." They'll
continue to happen "with increasing frequency until governments
realize that food isn't a mere commodity, it's a human right."
World Hunger - A Growing Problem for All
The situation is so dire, protests may
erupt anywhere, any time, and rich countries aren't immune, including
America. Poverty in the world's richest country is growing, and
organizations like the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)
and Economic Policy Institute (EPI) document it. They report on
a permanent (and growing) underclass of over 37 million people
earning poverty-level wages and say that official statistics understate
the problem. They note an unprecedented wealth gap between rich
and poor, a dying middle class, and growing millions in extreme
It affects the unemployed as well in times
of economic distress, but official government data conceals to
what extent. If employment calculations were made as originally
mandated, the true rate would be around 13% instead of the Department
of Labor's 5.1%. The same is true for inflation that's around
12% at the retail level instead of the official 4% that's hooey.
Under conditions of duress, hunger is
the clearest symptom, it's rising, and current food inflation
threatens to spiral it out of control if nothing is done to address
it. It's the highest in decades with 2007 signaling what's ahead
- eggs up 25% last year; milk 17%; rice, bread and pasta 12%,
and look at prices on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT):
-- grains and soy prices are at multi-year
-- wheat hit an all-time high above $12
a bushel with little relief ahead in spite of a temporary pullback
in price; the US Department of Agriculture forecasts that global
wheat stocks this year will fall to a 30 year low of 109.7 million
metric tons; USDA also projected US wheat stocks by year end 2008
at 272 million bushels - the lowest level since 1948;
-- corn and soybeans are also at record
levels; soybeans are at over $15 a bushel; corn prices shot above
$6 a bushel as demand for this and other crops soar in spite of
US farmers planting as much of them as possible to cash in on
Growing demand, a weak dollar, but mostly
another factor to be discussed below is responsible - the increased
use of corn for ethanol production with farmers diverting more
of their acreage from other crops to plant more of what's most
in demand. Forty-three per cent of corn production is for livestock
feed, but around one-fifth is for biofuels according to the National
Corn Growers Association (NCGA). Other estimates are as high as
25 - 30% compared to 14% two years ago, and NCGA estimates one-third
of the crop in 2009 will be for ethanol, not food. It's fueling
US and world food inflation with five year forecasts of it rising
In the world's poorest countries, people
starve. Here, they go on food stamps with a projected unprecedented
28 million Americans getting them this year as joblessness increases
in a weak economy. However, many millions in need aren't eligible
as social services are cut to finance foreign wars and tax cuts
for the rich, with poor folks at home losing out as a result.
A family of four only qualifies now if its net monthly income
is at or below $1721 or $20,652 a year. Even then, it gets the
same $542 monthly amount recipients received in 1996 to cover
today's much higher prices or around $1 dollar a meal per person
This is the UN's World Food Program (WFP)'s
dilemma worldwide at a time donations coming in are inadequate.
Its Executive Director, Josette Sheeran, said "Our ability
to reach people is going down just as needs go up....We are seeing
a new face of hunger in which people (can't afford to buy food)....Situations
that were previously not urgent" are now desperate. WFP's
funding needs keep rising. It estimates them at $3.5 billion,
they'll likely go higher, and they're for approved projects to
feed 73 million people in 78 counties worldwide. WFP foresees
much greater potential needs for unseen emergencies and for far
greater numbers of people in need.
People (who aren't poor) in rich countries
can manage with food accounting for about 10% of consumption.
In ones like China, it's around 30%, but in sub-Saharan Africa
and the poor in Latin America and Asia it's about 60% (or even
80%) and rising. It means food aid is vital, and without it people
will starve. But as food prices rise, the amount forthcoming (when
it's most needed) falls because not enough money is available
and too few donors offer help.
Agencies that can are doing less with
ones like USAID saying it's cutting the amount of food aid it
provides but won't say why. It's mission is to help the rich,
not the poor, or as it states on its web site: as a US government
agency, it "receives (its) overall foreign policy guidance
from the Secretary of State (and its mission is to) further America's
foreign policy interests (in the areas of) economic growth, agriculture
and trade...." That leaves out the poor.
Oxfam worries about what USAID ignores.
It called for immediate action by donors and governments to protect
the world's poor against rising food prices. One spokesperson
said: "Global economic uncertainty, high food prices, drought
(and other factors) all pose a serious threat to (the) vulnerable."
Another added: "More and more people are going to be facing
food shortages in the future. (Because of) rising food prices
we need to think (of its) impact on (the world's poor) who are
spending up to 80% of their incomes on food."
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right
to Food, Jean Ziegler, also expressed alarm. In comments to the
French daily Liberation he said: "We are heading for a very
long period of rioting, conflicts (and) waves of uncontrollable
regional instability marked by the despair of the most vulnerable
populations." He noted that even under normal circumstances
hunger plagues the world and claims the life of a child under
age 10 every five seconds. Because of the present crisis, we now
face "an imminent massacre."
Besides the usual factors cited, it's
vital to ask why, but don't expect Brazil's Lula to explain. Biofuel
production is the main culprit, but not according to him. Brazil
is a major biofuels producer. Last year it signed an R&D "Ethanol
Pact" with Washington to develop "next generation"
technologies for even more production.
In an April 16 Reuters report, the former
union leader was dismissive about the current crisis and rejected
criticisms that biofuels are at fault. In spite of protests at
home and around the world, he told reporters: "Don't tell
me....that food is expensive because of biodiesel. (It's) expensive
because" peoples' economic situation has improved and they're
eating more. It's true in parts of China and India, but not in
most other countries where incomes haven't kept pace with inflation.
Biofuels - A Scourge of Our Times
The idea of combustible fuels from organic
material has been around since the early auto age, but only recently
took off. Because they're from plant-based or animal byproduct
(renewable) sources, bio or agrofuels are (falsely) touted as
a solution to a growing world energy shortage with a huge claimed
added benefit - the nonsensical notion that they're clean and
green without all the troublesome issues connected to fossil fuels.
Biofuel is a general term to describe
all fuels from organic matter. The two most common kinds are bioethanol
as a substitute for gasoline, and biodiesel that serves the same
purpose for that type fuel.
Bioethanol is produced from sugar-rich
crops like corn, wheat and sugar cane. Most cars can burn a petroleum
fuel blend with up to 10% bioethanol without any engine modifications.
Some newer cars can run on pure bioethanol.
Biodiesel is produced from a variety of
vegetable oils, including soybean, palm and rapeseed (canola),
plus animal fats. This fuel can replace regular diesel with no
engine modifications required.
Cellulosic ethanol is another variety
and is made by breaking down fiber from grasses or most other
kinds of plants. Biofuels of all types are renewable since crops
are grown in season, harvested, then replanted for more output
In George Bush's 2007 State of the Union
address, he announced "It's in our vital interest to diversify
America's energy supply (and we) must continue investing in new
methods of producing ethanol (to) reduce gasoline usage in the
United States by 20% in the next 10 years. (To do it) we must
(set) a mandatory fuels (target of) 35 billion gallons of renewable
and alternative fuels in 2017 (to) reduce our dependence on foreign
Congress earlier passed the Energy Policy
Act of 2005 that mandated ethanol fuel production rise to four
billion gallons in 2006 and 7.5 billion by 2012. It already reached
6.5 billion barrels last year and is heading for nine billion
The 2007 Energy Independence and Security
Act gave added impetus to the Bush administration scheme with
plenty of agribusiness subsidies backing it. Its final version
sailed through both Houses in December, and George Bush made it
official on December 19. It upped the stakes over 2005 with one
of its provisions calling for 36 billion gallons of renewable
fuels by 2022 to replace 15% of their equivalent in oil. It represents
a nearly fivefold increase from current levels, and new goals
ahead may set it higher as rising oil prices (topping $117 a barrel
April 21) make a case for cheaper alternatives, and some in the
environmental community claim biofuels are eco-friendly.
Hold the applause, and look at the facts.
In a nutshell, organic fuels trash rainforests, deplete water
reserves, kill off species, and increase greenhouse emissions
when the full effects of producing them are included. At least
that's what Science Magazine says on the latter point. It reviewed
studies that examined how destruction of natural ecosystems (such
as tropical rain forests and South American grasslands) not only
releases greenhouse gases when they're burned and plowed but also
deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions.
Cropland also absorbs less carbon than rain forests or even the
scrubland it replaces.
Nature Conservancy scientist Joseph Fargione
(lead author of one study) concluded that grassland clearance
releases 93 times the greenhouse gases that would be saved by
fuel made annually on that land. For scientists and others concerned
about global warming, the research indicated that biofuel production
exacerbates the problem and thus should be reconsidered. Others
disagree and so far the trend continues with Europe and America
both setting ambitious goals that pay little attention to the
consequences they ignore.
Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director
of the Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, pays
close attention and wrote about it in an article published last
June by Agencia Latinoamericana de Informacion (ALAI) and thereafter
widely distributed. It's headlined "Biofuels: The Five Myths
of the Agro-fuels Transition." As he puts it: "the mythic
baggage of the agro-fuels transition needs to be publicly unpacked."
1. Agrofuels aren't clean and green. As
cited above, they produce far greater greenhouse gas emissions
than they save and also require large amounts of oil-based fertilizers
that contribute even more.
2. Agrofuel production will be hugely
destructive to forests in countries like Brazil where vast Amazon
devastation is well documented and is currently increasing at
nearly 325,000 hectares a year. By 2020 in Indonesia, "palm
oil plantations for bio-diesel (will continue to be) the primary
cause of forest loss (in a) country with one of the highest deforestation
rates in the world."
3. Agrofuels will destroy rural development.
Small farmers will be forced off their land and so will many thousands
of others in communities to make way for Big Oil, Agribusiness,
and Agribiotech to move in and take over for the huge profits
to be extracted in the multi-billions.
4. Agrofuels increase hunger. The poor
are always hurt most, the topic is covered above, and Holt-Gimenez
quotes another forecast. It's the International Food Policy Research
Institute's estimate that basic food staple prices will rise 30
- 33% by 2010, but that figure already undershoots based on current
data. FPRI also sees the rise continuing to 2020 by another 26
to 135% that will be catastrophic for the world's poor who can't
afford today's prices and are ill-equipped to raise their incomes
more than marginally if at all.
5. Better "second-generation"
argofuels aren't around the corner. Examples touted are eco-friendly
fast-growing trees and switchgrass (a dominant warm season central
North American tallgrass prairie species). Holt-Gimenez calls
the argument a "bait and switch-grass shell game" to
make the case for first generation production now ongoing. The
same environmental problems exists, and they'll be hugely exacerbated
by more extensive GMO crop plantings.
Holt-Gimenez sees agrofuels as a "genetic
Trojan horse" that's letting agribusiness giants like Monsanto
"colonize both our fuel and food system," do little
to offset a growing demand for oil, reap huge profits from the
scheme, get them at taxpayers' expense, and that's exactly what's
happening with Big Oil in on it, too, as a way to diversify through
large biofuel investments. More on this below.
The Ghost of Henry Kissinger
Kissinger made a chilling 1970 comment
that explains a lot about what's happening now - "Control
oil and you control nations; control food and you control the
people." Combine it with unchallengeable military power and
you control everything, and Kissinger likely said that, too.
He said plenty more in his classified
1974 memo on a secret project called National Security Study Memorandum
200 (NSSM 200) for a "world population plan of action"
for drastic global population control. He meant reducing it by
hundreds of millions, using food as a weapon, and overall reorganizing
the global food market to destroy family farms and replace them
with (agribusiness-run) factory ones. It's been ongoing for decades,
backed since January 1995 by WTO muscle, and characterized now
by huge agribusiness giants with monstrous vertically integrated
powers over the food we eat - from research labs to plantings
to processing to the supermarket and other food outlet shelves
around the world.
But it's even worse than that. Today,
five agribusiness behemoths, with little fanfare and enormous
government backing, plan big at our expense - to control the world's
food supply by making it all genetically engineered with biofuels
one part of a larger scheme.
By diverting crops for fuel, prices have
exploded, and five "Ag biotech" giants are exploiting
it - Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Agrisciences, Syngenta and Bayer CropScience
AG. Their solution - make all crops GMO, tout it as a way to increase
output and reduce costs, and claim it's the solution to today's
soaring prices and world hunger.
In fact, agribusiness power raises prices,
controls output to keep them high, and the main factor behind
today's situation is the conversion of US farmland to biofuel
factories. With less crop output for food and world demand for
it growing, prices are rising, and rampant commodity speculation
exacerbates the problem with traders profiting hugely and loving
it. It's another part of the multi-decade wealth transfer scheme
from the world's majority to the elite few. While the trend continues,
its momentum is self-sustaining, and it works because governments
back it. They subsidize the problem, keep regulations loose, give
business free reign, and maintain that markets work best so let
As mentioned above, about 43% of US corn
output goes for animal feed, but growing amounts are for biofuels
- now possibly 25 - 30% of production compared to around 14% two
years ago, up 300% since 2001, and today the total exceeds what's
earmarked for export, with no slowing down of this trend in sight.
The result, of course, is world grain reserves are falling, prices
soaring, millions starving, governments permitting it, and it's
only the early innings of a long-term horrifying trend - radically
transforming agriculture in humanly destructive ways:
-- letting agribusiness and Big Oil giants
control it for profit at the expense of consumer health and well-being;
-- making it all genetically engineered
and inflicting great potential harm to human health; and
-- producing reduced crop amounts for
food, diverting greater quantities for fuel, allowing prices to
soar, making food as dear as oil, ending government's responsibility
for food security, and tolerating the unthinkable - putting hundreds
of millions of poor around the world in jeopardy and letting them
starve to death for profit.
This is the brave new world neoliberal
schemers have in mind. They're well along with their plans, marginally
diverted by today's economic distress, well aware that growing
world protests that could prove hugely disruptive, but very focused,
nonetheless, on finding clever ways to push ahead with what's
worked pretty well for them so far, so they're not about to let
human misery jeopardize big profits.
If they won't reform, people have to do
it for them, and throughout history that's how it's always worked.
Over time, the stakes keep rising as the threats become greater,
and today they may be as great as they've ever been.
What better time for a new social movement
like those in the past that were pivotal forces for change. Famed
community organizer Saul Alinsky knew the way to beat organized
money is with organized people. In combination, they've succeeded
by taking to the streets, striking, boycotting, challenging authority,
disrupting business, paying with their lives and ultimately prevailing
by knowing change never comes from the top down. It's always from
the grassroots, from the bottom up, and what better time for it
than now. It's high time democracy worked for everyone, that destructive
GMO and biofuels schemes won't be tolerated, and that "America
the Beautiful" won't any longer just be for elites and no
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can
be reached at email@example.com.