To survive, Haitians Resort to Eating Dirt.


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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 wares.

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 neighbour.

"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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