How American tax dollars are keeping Arkansas rice growers fat on the farm and starving millions of Haitians.
BY MAURA R. O’CONNOR | JANUARY 11, 2013
In the wake of Haiti's devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake exactly three years ago, former U.S. President Bill Clinton issued an unusual and now infamous apology. Calling his subsidies to American rice farmers in the 1990s a mistake because it undercut rice production in Haiti, Clinton said he had struck a "devil's bargain" that ultimately resulted in greater poverty and food insecurity in Haiti.
"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked," he said. "I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did."
Despite Clinton's dramatic confession and his role as the United Nations' special envoy for Haiti, little has changed in the last three years for the Caribbean country's farmers. If anything, they appear worse off. Before Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard, its rain and flooding caused $234 million in agricultural losses in Haiti. For a brief moment, coverage of the disaster in the American media shone a light on the miserable conditions that the country's farmers are faced with -- a lack of infrastructure, capital, and markets that could help their families and the country prosper.
Meanwhile, for the last year a piece of U.S. legislation that could have arguably changed the playing field for Haiti's farmers has been stalled in Washington, D.C. A new $500 billion, five-year farm bill that might have cut subsidies to American rice farmers was never passed. And in the final hours of 2012, politicians extended the old one for another nine months.
The move effectively kicked the can down the road for changes to America's decades-old agricultural policies -- changes that could represent the first challenge to the "devil's bargain" Haiti and Arkansas have been a part of for so long.
Rice is a big deal in Arkansas -- the state produces half of the United States' total rice crop -- and Stuttgart, a small community nestled in thousands of acres of rice fields south of Little Rock, is no exception. For a long time, it was considered an offense in Stuttgart to buy any beer but Budweiser. Even if you could find a Coors, drinking it was viewed as self-defeating, seeing as Anheuser-Busch was a significant purchaser of the region's rice.
The world's two largest rice mills are located in the center of Stuttgart and process 40 percent of the country's rice crop, shipping the product to domestic and foreign markets on trains and river barges. These mills, rising out of the farmland like glacial erratics, are cooperatives owned by over 9,000 farmers in the region.
In Stuttgart, the farm bill has been a tremendous source of anxiety over the last year. For rice farmer Dow Brantley, the consequences are huge. Cuts to subsidy programs would take away his safety net and the risk of growing rice would become prohibitive, forcing him to turn his fields to corn or soybeans. "There's a lot of fear in the countryside," he said.