Can Haiti’s Peanut Value Chain Survive US Generosity?

Marie Carmel Lindor, who has a market stall in Kenscoff, in the mountains above Port-au-Prince. Marketing peanuts and other farm produce provides a livelihood to many Haitian women like Ms. Lindor. Credit: Diana Hernandez Cordero/Oxfam GB.

May 05, 2020

The following post is a guest submission from Marc J. Cohen and Tonny Joseph. 

Breakfast in Haiti typically includes manba, the local peanut butter. Unlike the smooth or chunky product found in the United States, it frequently includes a kick from chili peppers!

Haitian peanut butter stands out in another way. In a country where 60% of the food supply—and 80% or more of the rice—comes from abroad, most of the manba is processed locally from Haitian-grown peanuts. Though few Haitian farmers make their living entirely from peanuts, they represent an important income stream, particularly as they can resist the punishing droughts that Haiti has faced over the past few years. For low-income rural women, earnings from artisanal processing of peanut butter and peanut brittle, and from selling unshelled peanuts or peanut-based candy and pastry, mean a degree of economic empowerment and the ability to contribute to family expenses such as school fees and healthcare costs, as well as food.

Two US NGOs, Meds & Food for Kids (MFK) and Partners in Health, work with Haitian farmers to obtain peanuts used to produce ready-to-use foods for treating acutely malnourished children. MFK calls its product “medika manba.”  

The US government has provided substantial support to Haiti’s peanut production. Through the Feed the Future Initiative and other channels, US aid has helped boost Haitian peanut growers’ productivity and assisted them in harvesting goobers free from aflatoxin, a carcinogenic mold that is a major problem affecting Haitian peanuts.

So far, this sounds like a pretty positive story. But things took a nasty turn in 2016. In March of that year, the US Department of Agriculture announced what it called a “humanitarian” donation of 500 metric tons of dry roasted US peanuts to provide snacks for 140,000 malnourished school children. For many Haitians and international advocacy groups following development issues in Haiti, this looked like surplus dumping, or, worse, an effort to pry open the Haitian peanut market at the expense of thousands of local low-income producers, processors, and traders.  

As a new report by PAPDA (the Haitian Advocacy Platform for Alternative Development) and Oxfam shows, this perfectly illustrates the clash between two kinds of agriculture: small-scale farming of arid lands, subject to neoliberal policies and deprived of technical and financial support, and overdeveloped agriculture with cutting edge technology and trade protection for farmers. In the United States, 6,500 prosperous and politically well-organized peanut producers receive annual subsidies of $900 million in an exercise some observers have rightly called “naked rent seeking.” In Haiti 35,000 impoverished farmers receive no government support, generally lack organizations to represent their interests, and have only limited ability to access improved seeds, fertilizer, irrigation water, or herbicides to control aflatoxin.

US peanut farmers receive much more generous subsidies than those who grow other government-supported commodities, and the government agrees to acquire their crop if the market price falls below a certain level. Even mainstream economists call these perverse incentives for overproduction “nuts.” The storage costs have led to pressures from Congress and other quarters to move the surpluses overseas as either exports or food aid. The United States is now the world’s third largest peanut exporter.

For many Haitian farmers and advocacy groups, the donation seemed like just the latest chapter in a long history of US domination of Haitian food markets. This has included US-sponsored efforts to eradicate the Haitian pig population as a preemptive strike against African Swine Fever and the US dominance of Haiti’s rice market that followed the removal of import subsidies in 1995.

Also, the 500 tons of peanuts threatened to undermine a decade of US efforts to support Haitian peanut growers. The inconsistency between US agricultural trade policy on the one hand and agricultural assistance on the other called into question the effectiveness of US aid, going against the principle known as “policy coherence for development,” which holds that donor-country policies should mutually reinforce one another in promoting development.

The PAPDA-Oxfam report recommends that the Haitian government provide significant support to the peanut value chain. It also encourages the United States and other donor-country governments to continue providing aid to Haitian peanut production, while avoiding agricultural trade policies that undermine such assistance. The paper concludes by noting that the peanut value chain in Haiti is worthy of support as it represents a reliable economic, cultural, and nutritional pillar of Haitian society.

Last week, on May 1, Haitians celebrated their annual Agriculture and Labor Day holiday. Amidst the very difficult economic, political, and social conditions Haiti is facing, now vastly complicated by the effects of the coronavirus, it would be wonderful if the country could celebrate by exercising sovereignty over this one piece of its food and agriculture system.

Marc J. Cohen is a senior researcher at Oxfam, based in Washington, DC. Tonny Joseph is a Haitian political scientist and consultant based in Pétion Ville, Haiti. They co-authored the recent PAPDA-Oxfam report with PAPDA colleagues.

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