By Matthew Bigg
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Sept 15 (Reuters) - Haiti faces a deepening crisis after storms destroyed much of the impoverished country’s rice crop, sparking fears of a repeat of the deadly food riots earlier this year that brought down the government.
The storms killed hundreds of people and forced tens of thousands out of their homes in the port city of Gonaives. The city is the capital of the country’s rice bowl region of Artibonite, which suffered severe storm damage.
Charity Christian Aid estimates that roughly one third of the country’s 60,000-ton annual production of rice may have been ruined by floods.
Farm tools, seeds to plant next year’s crop, livestock that farmers live off and irrigation systems vital for rice production were also destroyed.
The damage is all the more serious because it came at harvest time. The losses will be most keenly felt by the poorest farmers, who plant and harvest later and who lack the capital to reinvest.
It could also have a big impact on the overall food economy.
"There could be price disruptions that could cause unrest and a situation similar to that in April. The population could get really frustrated," said Prospery Raymond, the representative of Christian Aid in Haiti.
Food is a sensitive political issue in the Caribbean nation, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Malnutrition is rampant in Haiti, where many people live on less than $2 a day.
Riots in April over an increase in food prices killed at least five people, including a member of the U.N. peacekeeping force, and collapsed the government of Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, an ally of President Rene Preval.
The soaring cost of rice, beans, cooking oil and other staples was caused by grains being diverted into ethanol production, a growing demand for meat as India and China became wealthier, high global oil prices and, to some extent, market speculation. But in Haiti many people blamed the government.
Less than two decades ago, Haiti was almost self-sufficient in rice production. In the mid-1990s, the country slashed tariffs on imported rice in response to pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
As a result, cheap subsidized rice from the United States came to dominate the market, causing national production to plummet, according to a report in June by the British-based aid agency Oxfam.
"Haiti is now importing 80 percent of the rice it consumes just as world prices have doubled," the report said.
Critics argue that international lending organizations helped worsen hunger in Haiti by pursuing free market policies that undermined domestic rice production and turned the country into a market for U.S. rice.
Supporters of trade liberalization say there is little alternative and it is the best way to transform the country’s economy after decades of mismanagement and dictatorships.
A combination of measures would be needed to mitigate the damage done to this year’s harvest and to prevent steep price rises, said Raymond.
The market should step up imports and humanitarian organizations should help with targeted food aid. But aid should not replace domestic, commercial production of food.
At the same time, remittances from overseas, a key source of income for the country, need to increase, he said.
"Food aid must be calibrated. If not, it will play havoc with the market and the farmers (and) it will affect domestic production," Raymond said. (Editing by Michael Christie and Ross Colvin)