Saturday, April 26, 2008

Death Zone

The New York Times recently ran an article regarding Haiti’s food crisis. As the author walked through Cite Soleil he noted people making mud patties to eat. He noted that most of the “poorest of the poor suffer silently, too weak for activism or too busy raising the next generation of hungry”. The Times article ended with a young mother from Soleil offered one of her five children to the author and said, “Take one. You pick. Just feed them.”

After working in Haiti since 1981, being offered a child is almost an everyday experience. When I tell people at home that Haitian women frequently attempt to give their babies away, it is hard to believe. The quality of the Haitian mother can be questioned by people that have not been in Cite Soleil, but her offer of her child is a real act of love. She is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. She wants the child to live and is willing to give her child to someone she doesn't know while realizing that she will never see her child again.

Who can blame her?

Haitians have been hungry and malnourished for along time. With the recent press of Haitians eating mud patties and the food riots last week, the world has focused on Haiti and many other countries suffering similar circumstances—high food prices and not enough money.

The United States started selling Haiti rice in the mid 1980’s at prices much less than the Haitian farmer could sell his rice. So the Haitian farmer went out of business as irrigation systems became dysfunctional, fertilization of land became problematic, and the once rich Haitian countryside was allowed to deteriorate. It became necessary for Haiti to import 80% of its rice.

Farmers in the United States are making a huge surplus of rice today. But the price of rice has gone up for all of us, including Haitians, because of energy reasons. It costs more to get the rice from the U.S. to the hungry mouths waiting for it in Haiti. And Haitians can’t afford much.

To work in Haiti is truly an embarrassment for me. The vast majority of diseases that I see are brought on by poverty. And when people are poor, their water and food supply is inadequate. Parents have very little to give to their children. And their children become malnourished and enter the downward spiral…

With this latest crisis in Haiti, hundreds of people are fleeing Haiti’s shores for the United States. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. State Department warns Americans who are visiting Haiti about the “chronic danger of violent crime,” all the while repatriating Haitians to a “death zone”. President Preval of Haiti recently requested Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians who are unlawfully in the United States. TPS designations have been given to Somalia, Burundi, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Sudan. The last time Haiti applied for TPS was in 2004 and was denied for undisclosed reasons.

Obviously Haiti has to begin to produce enough of its own food again. President Rene Preval has lowered the price of “Miami” rice. The Haitian farmer needs a good price for fertilizer. Poor Haitians in the province need to be put to work repairing the irrigation systems. This would improve the fields, rice and other foods would grow, and Haitian women wouldn't be offering their starving babies to strangers.

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