* Farming sector crushed by cheaper rice, sugar imports
* Calls for farm investment to boost post-quake recovery
* Lone working sugar mill hamstrung by shortage of cane
By Pascal Fletcher
LEOGANE, Haiti, March 26 Laborers at Haiti's
only working sugar mill, the Jean Leopold Dominique de
Darbonne, chew on sugar cane stalks to sustain themselves as
they prepare the factory for another grinding season.
But it is foreign imported sugar and rice, besides
dirt-poor subsistence farming, that sustains Haiti's nearly 10
million population -- an underdevelopment dilemma that has been
highlighted as the Caribbean nation struggles to rebuild after
the devastating earthquake in January.
More than two centuries ago, Haiti was Saint Domingue,
France's Caribbean jewel built on sugar and slavery, and the
richest colony in the world. A bloody slave revolt won
independence from France in 1804.
But the Haiti that was bludgeoned by the Jan. 12 earthquake
had the unenviable identity of being the poorest state in the
Western Hemisphere, unable to feed itself and spending a
staggering 80 percent of its revenues to pay for food imports.
Since the disaster, which Haiti's government believes may
have killed more than 300,000 people, foreign relief groups
have brought in vast quantities of food aid to feed more than 1
million people left homeless by the quake.
But as the government and foreign experts prepare for a
donors' conference to be held in New York on March 31, they are
calling for a complete reform of Haiti's decrepit farm sector
to break the crippling dependency on food imports and aid.
"We won independence 200 years ago but ... not really,
because we're begging consistently," Regine Barjon of the
Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce, who is pressing for
private investment in Haiti's agriculture, told Reuters.
She said foreign donors, multilateral lenders and aid
groups must concentrate on making Haiti economically
self-sustainable, especially in food, after the quake, if the
country can ever hope to escape from its poverty trap.
Barjon said imports of rice, sugar and poultry, largely
from the United States, were $550 million a year. "If Haiti was
able to produce all these things, and it can ... we would
reduce our annual trade deficit by 50 percent," she said.
"The mills and plants for sugar, rice and poultry are
there. What they need are investments to restart."
One example is the Darbonne sugar mill, located southwest
of the capital Port-au-Prince outside Leogane, a town near the
quake epicenter which was devastated. Most of its inhabitants
live in tent camps situated between the ruins of their homes.
LACK OF SUGAR CANE
Built in the early 1980s with Italian cooperation, the mill
was closed after two years because it could not compete with
cheaper imports of sugar. Left prey to neglect and vandalism,
it was restarted with Cuban help in 2001 following a request to
Cuban leader Fidel Castro by Haitian President Rene Preval.
But the factory has been producing well below its full
capacity, even though a team of Cuban technicians has kept it
operational for nearly a decade.
It produced 2,607 tonnes of sugar in 2005, its best year
since restarting, but made no sugar in 2009, instead
manufacturing syrup for alcohol distillers.
This meager output compares to the 250,000 tonnes of sugar
that Haiti imports each year, from the United States, the
neighboring Dominican Republic and other sugar producers.
Experts now acknowledge that the influx over the past two
decades of subsidized cheaper farm imports, ushered in by World
Bank and International Monetary Fund free-trade policies that
obliged Haiti to open its markets, delivered a virtual death
blow to Haitian agriculture from which it has never recovered.
"Haiti should be producing its own sugar," said Dominique
Volcin, the Darbonne mill's technical director since 2003.
"We need to modernize, because agriculture is the economic
base of our country," he added, saying the sugar sector needed
a combination of determined state support and private
investment to allow it to replace the cheaper imports.
The Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce's Barjon is also
the CEO of BioTek Solutions Inc, a U.S.-based company that is
proposing a public-private partnership for the Darbonne mill.
The team of Cuban technicians who maintain the factory say
it is technically sound but the main obstacle to increased
output is the lack of sufficient sugar cane.
The factory sustained only minor damage in the earthquake
and was to open the 2010 grinding season on Friday.
"We think the biggest problem is the supply of cane," said
one of the Cubans, Jorge Luis Perez.
Most of the cane growers in the surrounding area of Leogane
and Gressier are peasant farmers working tiny half-hectare
plots with poor resources. This means they cannot produce the
sufficient quantities of high-yielding cane the mill needs.
"WRONG-HEADED" PAST GLOBAL POLICY
On a visit to quake-stricken Haiti this week, former U.S.
President Bill Clinton recognized that the United States and
international financial institutions like the World Bank,
albeit well-intentioned, had been wrong to push developing
states into opening their markets to cheap subsidized imports.
During his presidency from 1993 to 2001, he said he had
signed legislation that had effectively increased the
penetration of American rice into Haiti, which decimated that
country's own rice production.
"I think it was a mistake, I think it was part of a global
trend that was wrong-headed," Clinton told reporters, adding he
was now looking to boost Haitian farm output by providing seeds
and fertilizer through his own charitable foundation.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in
collaboration with the Haitian government, has prepared a $721
million investment blueprint for the agricultural sector aimed
at developing rural areas and production and boosting
distribution channels and agricultural services.
But achieving the food self-sufficiency goal will clearly
take time and political will, and also involve loosening the
grip of past alliances between powerful importing impresarios
and the country's political rulers.
"So as to not import, you have to produce enough to feed
everyone, and if you don't produce enough, you have to buy it
from somewhere else ... that's life," said Volcin.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)