With little cash and import prices rocketing half the population
Haiti: Mud cakes become staple diet as cost of food soars beyond a
By Rory Carroll in Port-au-Prince
29/07/08 "The Guardian" -- - At first sight the business resembles a
thriving pottery. In a dusty courtyard women mould clay and water
into hundreds of little platters and lay them out to harden under the
The craftsmanship is rough and the finished products are uneven. But
customers do not object. This is Cité Soleil, Haiti's most notorious
slum, and these platters are not to hold food. They are food.
Brittle and gritty - and as revolting as they sound - these are "mud
cakes". For years they have been consumed by impoverished pregnant
women seeking calcium, a risky and medically unproven supplement, but
now the cakes have become a staple for entire families.
It is not for the taste and nutrition - smidgins of salt and
margarine do not disguise what is essentially dirt, and the Guardian
can testify that the aftertaste lingers - but because they are the
cheapest and increasingly only way to fill bellies.
"It stops the hunger," said Marie-Carmelle Baptiste, 35, a producer,
eyeing up her stock laid out in rows. She did not embroider their
appeal. "You eat them when you have to."
These days many people have to. The global food and fuel crisis has
hit Haiti harder than perhaps any other country, pushing a population
mired in extreme poverty towards starvation and revolt. Hunger burns
are called "swallowing Clorox", a brand of bleach.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts Haiti's food
import bill will leap 80% this year, the fastest in the world. Food
riots toppled the prime minister and left five dead in April.
Emergency subsidies curbed prices and bought calm but the cash-
strapped government is gradually lifting them. Fresh unrest is
According to the UN, two-thirds of Haitians live on less than 50p a
day and half are undernourished. "Food is available but people cannot
afford to buy it. If the situation gets worse we could have
starvation in the next six to 12 months," said Prospery Raymond,
country director of the UK-based aid agency Christian Aid.
Until recently this Caribbean nation, which vies with Afghanistan for
appalling human development statistics, had been showing signs of
recovery: political stability, new roads and infrastructure, less
gang warfare. "We had been going in the right direction and this
crisis threatens that," said Eloune Doreus, the vice-president of
As desperation rises so does production of mud cakes, an unofficial
misery index. Now even bakers are struggling. Trucked in from a clay-
rich area outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, the mud is costlier
but cakes still sell for 1.3p each, about the only item immune from
inflation. "We need to raise our prices but it's their last resort
and people won't tolerate it," lamented Baptiste, the Cité Soleil
Vendors of other foods who have increased prices have been left with
unsold stock. In the Policard slum, a jumble of broken concrete
clinging to a mountainside, the Ducasse family tripled the price of
its fritters because of surging flour prices. "Our sales have fallen
by half," said Jean Ducasse, 49, poking at his tray of shrivelled
The signs of crisis are everywhere. Aid agency feeding centres
reported that the numbers seeking help have tripled. At a centre in
the Fort Mercredi slum rail-thin women cradled infants with yellowing
hair, a symptom of malnutrition. "Now we're having to feed the
mothers as well as the babies," said Antonine Saint-Quitte, a nurse.
In rural areas the situation seems even worse, prompting a continued
drift to the slums and their mirage of opportunities. Lillian
Guerrick, 56, a subsistence farmer near Cap Haitien, yanked her seven
grandchildren from school because there was barely money for food let
alone fees. "I've no choice," she said, a touch defensive, amid
wizened corn stalks.
Anecdotal evidence suggests school attendance nationwide has dropped
and that those who do make it to class are sometimes too hungry to
concentrate. "I use jokes to try to stimulate my students, to wake
them up," said Smirnoff Eugene, 25, a Port-au-Prince teacher.
Border crossings to the Dominican Republic are jammed with throngs of
merchants hunting lower prices in their relatively prosperous
"Beep beep, out of the way!" yelled one teenage boy, sweating, veins
throbbing, as he heaved a wheelbarrow impossibly overloaded with
onions through a crowd at Ouanaminthe's border bridge.
Haiti's woes stem from global economic trends of higher oil and food
prices, plus reduced remittances from migrant relatives affected by
the US downturn. What makes the country especially vulnerable,
however, is its almost total reliance on food imports.
Domestic agriculture is a disaster. The slashing and burning of
forests for farming and charcoal has degraded the soil and chronic
under-investment has rendered rural infrastructure at best rickety,
at worst non-existent.
The woes were compounded by a decision in the 1980s to lift tariffs,
when international prices were lower, and flood the country with
cheap imported rice and vegetables. Consumers gained and the IMF
applauded but domestic farmers went bankrupt and the Artibonite
valley, the country's breadbasket, atrophied.
Now that imports are rocketing in price the government has vowed to
rebuild the withered agriculture but that is a herculean task given
scant resources, degraded soil and land ownership disputes.
There is a hopeful precedent. A growing franchise of localised
dairies known as Let Agogo (Creole for Unlimited Milk) has organised
small farmers to transport and market milk, generating jobs and
income and cutting Haiti's £20m annual milk import bill.
President René Préval has hailed the scheme as a model but Michel
Chancy, a driving force of Veterimed, a non-governmental organisation
which backs the dairies, was wary. "For 20 years politicians have
been talking about reviving agriculture but didn't actually do
anything. If this food crisis forces them to act then it is a big
opportunity." That was a big if, he said.
Walk along a beach in the morning and you find Haitians gazing at the
azure ocean horizon, dreaming of escape. They are fiercely proud of
their history in overthrowing slavery and colonialism but these days
the US, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic - anywhere but home -
seems the best option.
The only thing stopping an exodus are US coastguard patrols, said
Herman Janvier, 30, a fishermen on Cap Haitian, a smuggling
point. "People want out of here. It's like we're almost dead people."
The last time Janvier tried to flee he was intercepted and interned
at Guantánamo Bay. "I offered to join the American army. I offered to
clean their base. They said no. So I am back here, on a boat with no
motor, doing what I can to survive."
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