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MIREBALAIS, Haiti – The barefoot farmer oversees three teenage workers as they attack weeds with spades in a sunbaked field of peanut plants, a vital cash crop often grown on Haiti's marginal farmland.
If he's lucky, Francois Merilus will reap a meager harvest amid a lengthy drought that has shriveled yields and worsened Haiti's chronic hunger. Now the subsistence farmer is dismayed by what he believes could be the latest challenge to his ability to eke out a living: free peanuts arriving from the U.S. as humanitarian aid.
"Foreign peanuts can only make things harder for us," said Merilus, whose organic farm in central Haiti is plowed by oxen and maintained without pesticides or chemical fertilizers only because he could never dream of affording them.
A recently announced plan to ship 500 metric tons of surplus American peanuts to help feed 140,000 malnourished schoolchildren in Haiti has set off a fierce debate over whether such food aid is a humanitarian necessity or a counterproductive gesture.
Critics say agricultural surplus aid and heavily subsidized food imports do more harm than good by undercutting local farmers and pushing the hemisphere's poorest nation farther from self-sufficiency.
"This program does nothing to boost capacity in Haiti and does nothing to address consistent food insecurity," said Oxfam America senior researcher Marc Cohen.
While an online petition is circulating calling for President Barack Obama's administration to stop surplus "dumping" on Haiti, the U.S. government and the U.N. food agency are defending the aid program, which they say represents only 1.4 percent of Haiti's average annual peanut production.
They say critics don't take into account how dismal Haitian harvests have been and how badly struggling children need more nutrition. As many as 30 percent of Haitian youngsters suffer from chronic malnutrition, and the cumulative impact of a three-year drought is so severe that Haiti is facing "unprecedented food insecurity," the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.
"If this donation arrives in Haiti, it is doubtful it will make any difference to the economy, but for sure it will make a difference in improving the diets of the most vulnerable children attending schools," said Alejandro Chicheri, a U.N. World Food Program spokesman.
The humanitarian program calls for packaged, dry-roasted peanuts from a vast U.S. stockpile to be distributed as morning snacks to youngsters in rural schools. Over 600 schools are already receiving daily hot meals with donated U.S. bulgur wheat, green peas and vegetable oil.
To prevent leakage into the Haitian marketplace, the U.S. is designing a monitoring program with the U.N. food agency to ensure the peanuts go only to the targeted children, said Matt Herrick, communications director with the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Herrick said the argument that the U.S. should simply source Haitian peanuts doesn't take into consideration the fact that the local supply has a high incidence of aflatoxin, a carcinogenic fungus that grows on moldy peanuts. While the USDA is funding research into the use of local peanuts in emergency rations and school feeding programs, he said for now "the only factory in Haiti that produces peanut-based food rations to address the current health and nutrition crisis has routinely had to import aflatoxin-free peanuts."
The donation from the American peanut stockpile, which saw an influx of a whopping 113,167 metric tons from U.S. farmers last year, is being made in coordination with Haiti's interim government. Senior officials at Haiti's agriculture ministry and its food security unit declined to comment.
Haiti has a complicated relationship with foreigners who provide aid and there is no shortage of Haitians who insist the United States, which occupied the country from 1919 until 1934, has a vested interest in keeping their homeland economically dependent.
The troubled history of U.S. involvement in Haitian agricultural policy has done nothing to ease these suspicions.
In the early 1980s, fearing Haiti's Creole pigs could spread African swine fever amid a deadly outbreak, the U.S. Congress authorized $23 million to slaughter local pigs and replace them with hybrid pigs from Iowa. The imported pigs struggled to adapt, often became sick and had few litters.
For Haitians, the most bitterly remembered example is the collapse of the local rice market.
Haiti was largely self-sufficient in rice by the mid-1980s. But in subsequent years, Haiti repeatedly slashed tariffs on cheaper imported rice at the behest of the U.S. and the World Bank. As a result, U.S. subsidized rice inundated the market and the Caribbean country roughly the size of Maryland is now the second-biggest export destination for American rice growers, according to the USA Rice Federation.
"If the U.S. really wanted to help Haiti they would focus on serious work improving irrigation and farmers' access to credit," said Haitian economist and activist Camille Chalmers, who argues that the peanut aid is mainly about drawing down the U.S. stockpile and benefiting American agribusiness.
But efforts to lead Haiti to self-sufficiency face a slew of chronic obstacles, including political gridlock or instability, severe environmental degradation and neglected rural infrastructure. Although almost 80 percent of rural households farm, the agriculture sector with its persistent litany of natural disasters receives less than 4 percent of Haiti's budget.
Some international aid experts, like Cohen of Oxfam America, warn that the U.S. peanut donation could eventually become another cautionary tale about humanitarian aid from a wealthy nation that undermines a flimsy economy in a poor one.
If this agricultural surplus aid results in a "consistent policy of shipping U.S. peanuts into a market that has the potential to supply itself then it very well could cause lasting damage to Haiti's fragile agricultural sector," he said.
David McFadden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dmcfadd