International development organizations have begun to recognize the importance of agriculture in Haiti after decades of prioritizing other sectors and delivering food aid that some say only further depressed local markets. In recent months, the Inter-American Development Bank approved both a $27 million land tenure security project and a $15 million agricultural reform project. USAID made "food and economic security" one of its four "pillars" of development in Haiti following the country's 2010 earthquake, and the World Food Program is beginning to procure some of its food aid from local sources (4 percent of Haiti's rice imports come in the form of food aid).
But the key partner in implementing these programs is the Haitian government, which has a history of neglecting its peasant base and relying on foreign countries for over half of its anemic budget. "Changes in U.S. farm policy will only promote agriculture development and food security if the government of Haiti adopts polices that put agriculture higher on the agenda," argued Regine Barjon of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce. "The [government] said they want to reduce Haiti's reliance on food imports by 25 percent over the next four years. In order to do that, they need money."
In June, one month after he assumed his role as Haiti's minister of agriculture, natural resources, and rural development, Thomas Jacques met me at his ministry's temporary offices. The original ministry building -- a stunning French colonial-looking behemoth -- was damaged in the earthquake and stands empty, rubble still pouring through its front doors as though it were frozen in January 2010. Jacques explained that he had spent six years in the ministry focusing on the question of rice, and one of his first acts as minister in the coming months would be to create a rice commission made up of agronomists, government officials, and businessmen that would focus on increasing domestic production. Not only would the commission create technology "packages" for farmers, he added, but it would also consider raising import tariffs to protect the local market. "The main function is to make sure that the price of the product is accessible and people can afford it," Jacques said. "It's a balance of production and importation. It has to be a fair balance." He admitted that the ministry's paltry budget is a "big problem" standing in the way of his goal.
Most significantly, Jacques said that Haiti's rice importers would be part of the commission. The business is dominated by a handful of figures, some of whom have longstanding business relationships with mills in Arkansas. According to a 2010 USAID report, a mere six importers control 70 percent of the import market and often exhibit rent-seeking behavior -- seeking profits without creating new wealth -- that can further exacerbate food insecurity in the country. It is arguably these importers that have the greatest interest in Haiti's dependence on imports, but they are also uniquely capable of making significant investments in local agriculture if they could be convinced that doing so would be profitable. Although a price-control commission for food commodities was created in September, there have been no reports of a rice production commission beginning its work.
One of Haiti's major rice importers is SAJ Holdings, which Steeve Khawly's father started in the early 1990s. At one time, the company represented about 10 percent of the rice import market in the country, according to Khawly, who now runs the business. Khawly said he believes importers cannot invest in Haitian agriculture without government leadership to offset the considerable risks. "Only the government can invest in irrigation and the rehabilitation of the land," he noted. "And if all those conditions were met, the importers can then say, ‘I want to be part of the process. I'm going to invest in the industry myself since I already have the distribution.'"
Ten years ago, Khawly bought a rice mill in Guyana, disassembled it, and shipped it to Haiti. "When I realized there were 40,000 hectares of land in Haiti and not one single rice mill, I said there must be rice to process," he explained. But even with a monopoly on Haiti's only mill, he could not process and sell enough rice on the local market to make the endeavor profitable. He was forced to disassemble the mill and ship it back to Guyana. In spite of this failure, Khawly still marvels at the possibilities. "If we were to do the same tonnage that the U.S. does per hectare, that would mean 160,000 tons of rice per season. Every six months, we could do it."