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Colonialism Created Food Insecurity in Haiti, Now Climate Change Compounds It

The U.S. must end its unfair trade practices and stop flooding Haiti’s markets with food that can be grown locally.

As the planet faces more climate-driven disasters, we must prioritize the safety and wellbeing of populations most vulnerable to their effects. Extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms are becoming more frequent and intense worldwide while human industry, resource extraction, consumption and carbon emissions contribute to rapidly warming temperatures and rising seas. Amid this massive and multipronged human-made disaster, global food productivity growth is down 21 percent. Climate change is exacerbating food insecurity, wiping out agricultural production, devastating livelihoods and forcing people to flee their homes.

Yet, these impacts are not experienced evenly around the world. According to the World Food Programme, over 40 percent of the global population already lives in places that are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Although these communities contribute least to the problem, they are confronted with the worst impacts and have limited means to weather them. Often, they’re described as the least resilient — while also, ironically, praised by the West for their psychosocial resilience in the face of unthinkable stressors. This dearth of climate resiliency, however, derives from the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. In other words, certain policies and foreign interventions have by design deprived certain populations of resources, decision-making power, food sovereignty and healthy environments, leaving them ill-equipped to endure climate-driven disasters.

The impacts of climate change are particularly severe in the Caribbean, the second most hazard prone region in the world, and especially in Haiti. In 2021, the Global Climate Risk Index ranked Haiti one of the most vulnerable countries to weather-related losses between 2000-2019, both in terms of lives and economy. While the United Nations warns of unprecedented levels of hunger worldwide, Haiti — a predominantly agricultural nation — is facing the compounding threats of rising sea levels, failed rainy seasons and intensifying heat. In North Haiti, months of extended drought have devastated recent attempts to plant trees and crops. The latest figures from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification show that 4.7 million people in Haiti — nearly half the population — are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity. Many familiar with the Haitian context are also citing how recent surges in political instability, armed gang activities, and growing inflation are limiting access to affordable food and contributing to high levels of hunger. Structural vulnerability and structural violence, though, are always historically rooted. Any plans to mitigate present and future food insecurity must deal not only with climate change, but also with the legacy of foreign intervention.

Historical Context

After enduring a century of brutality, plantation economics and racialized colonial rule, enslaved Africans and their descendants in the French colony of Saint-Domingue fought for and achieved independence in 1804. In response, France forced the new nation to pay its former slaveholders the equivalent of $21 billion in exchange for diplomatic recognition. This debt not only undermined any attempt for Haiti to invest in the wellbeing of its people, but also in part prompted the United States to stage a 19-year military occupation of the country (1915-1934) to ensure it would pay up. It was during this occupation that Haiti’s agricultural sector began to radically change. Rather than continuing a practice of planting a variety of crops that could sustain them if one crop failed, Haitian farmers were encouraged to use their land to grow single crops like cotton, maize, rice, sisal and rubber for export.

A recently published article one of us co-authored with Sophie Sapp Moore demonstrates how the United States orchestrated specific agricultural interventions and trade policies in Haiti during the 20th and early 21st centuries to reinforce its economic, political and ecological control of the country. Following the occupation, the U.S. government advanced strategies allowing it to maintain management of multiple Haitian sectors, including agricultural development. When Green Revolution-era technopolitical attempts to increase crop yields failed by the 1970s, U.S. government officials, bureaucrats and private interest groups — linked in particular to the U.S. rice industry — shifted to all-out promotion of U.S. food products.

Haiti was largely food self-sufficient until the mid-1980s. Then, amid political turmoil after the fall of the François and Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorships in 1986 and under pressure from the U.S. government and international finance institutions, Haiti began to liberalize trade. U.S.-grown rice, heavily subsidized under the 1985 Farm Bill, began pouring into the country. In 1995, a coalition of United States Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, U.S. agribusiness consultants, Chemonics International and President Bill Clinton — who later apologized — forced Haiti to slash import tariffs on rice from 50 percent to 3 percent, which has been great for U.S. growers but continues to devastate local food producers, who can’t compete with lower-priced imports. Today, about 90 percent of rice, all cooking oil and nearly half of all the food consumed in Haiti is imported. As Haitian smallholder farmers have often reported to us, “Even if we can grow more food, we’re unable to sell it in the market.”

Haitians have been acutely aware of and resisting these incursions into their food sovereignty at each step. In 1986, as U.S. rice began to flood Haiti’s market, smallholder and subsistence farmers barricaded highways and ports for three months. More recently, after U.S.-based Monsanto — the world’s largest seed company — delivered a donation of 60 tons of chemically treated hybrid maize and vegetable seed in May 2010, around 10,000 Haitian farmers demonstrated against what they called a “deadly gift.” And while Congress debated the 2012 Farm Bill, Haitians joined calls to end decades of enormous subsidies to U.S. rice producers.

Intensifying climate-driven hazards threaten to worsen colonialism’s toll on food security in Haiti, as elsewhere. We know that if emissions are not reduced, the frequency of food-supply shocks will greatly increase worldwide. The present global economy compounds this risk because of dependence on just a handful of major food-producing countries. More needs to be done to dismantle unfair trade practices and the flooding of vulnerable food markets with foreign products which can be grown locally. As Congress prepares to negotiate the 2023 Farm Bill, U.S. elected officials and constituents have the chance to reconsider a piece of legislation which has caused so much harm around the world. Farms in the United States have received nearly $478 billion in total subsidies between 1995-2021. Three of the top five recipients are rice corporations. Reducing subsidies to U.S. growers would not only benefit the U.S. budget deficit, but also give Haitians the opportunity to really invest in their local food systems and strengthen community self-sufficiency without having to compete with unfairly subsidized imports.

Meanwhile, individuals across Haiti have already been working to strengthen food sovereignty, create circular economies in their communities, and mitigate vulnerability to domestic and international climate-driven food supply shocks. Founded in 1973, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay is among many grassroots organizations supporting the development and preservation of the country’s smallholder farms and local markets. In the hills of Haiti’s southeast, Grown in Haiti is creating thriving food ecosystems through regenerative land practices. And in the rural north, one of us (Elio Dortilus) has gathered a collective of farmers to establish test plots and a seed bank to support local agriculture and decrease reliance on imported foods.

Haitians’ knowledge, experience and expertise in food sovereignty and climate change adaptation must be honored, financed and protected. Real resilience derives from locally situated systems of collective care; from repair and strengthening of ecological relationships that nourish both land and people.

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