Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More mud......not in yer eye.

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose......

The whole Fire thing knocked me off my food oriented mission. This is a food blog, after all.

I have had this post simmering for three weeks.

As Obama drifts to the center like the Titanic snuggling up to the iceberg......and John Insane fully pounds his chest about Free Trade.......here are a couple of wake up calls.

In Cité Soleil, one of Port-au-Prince's worst slums, making the clay-based food is a major income earner. Mud cakes are the only inflation-proof food available to Haiti's poor.

Foto from David Levene.

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 Caribbean sun.

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."

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 expected.

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 parliament.

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 baker.

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.

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.

Same thing in Mexico.

NAFTA guaranteed open access to American markets to Mexican farmers......who were immediately crushed under the heel of hyper competitive agri-businesses.

In theory, Free Trade works great. Small producers, wherever they are, have open access to markets around the world.

Unfortunately.......in every case.....small local producers have to deal with one or two wholesalers and distributors who are free to set producer prices independent of global markets. In Mexico there are hundreds of thousands....millions of corn farmers. There are only two corn processors.....one of whom makes all the tortillas you have ever eaten if you don't speak Spanish and hang on the East Side of Salinas.

Guess where the profits go?

Those corn farmers have been systematically fucked to the point that they are now.......in Carmel Valley in front of Kasey's looking for day work to feed their families back in Mexico.

Talk Free Trade in North Carolina......

Wal Mart gutted the entire 200 year old textile industry of North Carolina to save consumers 20 cents on each T-shirt that you can buy in Marina.

What did you do with that 20 cents? How will it help an entire society on the East Coast?

When you buy those 30 tortillas at Costco for only four bucks......how will the money you save help the farmer in Tepotzlan?

And how will your uncle, the union carpenter...... deal with sitting around not working when the farmer from Tepotzlan who used to grow corn at a profit shows up at Kasey's and gets the carpenter job for ten bucks an hour with no benefits?

In Haiti, they are economically, racially and geographically fucked.

They can't compete against corn from Colorado.....where my old bar buddy from Telluride raises 40,000 acres of corn with one employee.

They are black.....and therefore at the bottom of the Cute Impoverished pile.

They live on an island......and our Coast Guard....and the Cuban Coast Guard.....are completely on top of any Haitian rowboat's idea of freedom in Miami or Daiquiri.

Hey.......anyone for Mud Cakes?

2 Comments:

Blogger Benjamin said...

Don't lose hope yet. I'm sure the dirt up on those hills can make some damn fine mud pies if that is what it comes down too. And while with all this talk about donating money to the volunteers; I'm sure we can all ship some of the dirt (that has just been piling up, I might add) in our backyards to Haiti for some "food aid". How 'bout it?

9:33 AM  
Blogger Tzila "Z" said...

The whole line of your post about this is a good reminder of our own increasing poverty here in the US. The gap between have & have not is widening, creating a real hunger situation for the poor of the poor. If the grand wazoos in charge continue to bankrupt this country, we will see serious food issues here.

Doesn't seem so, does it? Whole Foods and all that ilk continue to sell to who can afford their 'specialty' wares, and they seem to have plenty of folks who CAN buy all that. (I worked for them for 3.5 years, and saw the truth of it) But with a can of peaches in Albertson's up to $2-3, the many of us at the other end are SOL.

I am currently in the Southern Oregon area, trying to make a go of it here, and I am pleased to relate that almost everyone here grows SOMETHING food-wise in their yards. Should be a law...even apt dwellers can grow a tomato bush in a pot.

Those poor in Haiti...on an island and with no way off...and kept eating dirt...I feel for them and hope there IS more "unrest". "We" (USA) sure were quick to airlift food etc. to Georgia recently...but, then, that's politics. I guess there's nothing to gain politically by helping the Haitians.

Geez...what a mess...

1:40 PM  

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