Friday, April 18, 2008


People hoarding rice in Asia, eating mud in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Hunger bashed in the front gate of Haiti's presidential palace. Hunger poured onto the streets, burning tires and taking on soldiers and the police. Hunger sent the country's prime minister packing.

Haiti's hunger, that burn in the belly that so many here feel, has become fiercer than ever in recent days as global food prices spiral out of reach, spiking as much as 45 percent since the end of 2006 and turning Haitian staples such as beans, corn and rice into closely guarded treasures.

Saint Louis Meriska's children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal recently and then went without any food the next day. His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said forlornly: "They look at me and say, 'Papa, I'm hungry,' and I have to look away. It's humiliating and it makes you angry."

That anger is palpable across the globe. The food crisis is not only being felt among the poor, but also is eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, sowing volatile levels of discontent and putting new pressures on fragile governments.

In Cairo, Egypt, the military is being put to work baking bread as rising food prices threaten to become the spark that ignites wider anger at a repressive government. In Burkina Faso and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, food riots are breaking out as never before. In reasonably prosperous Malaysia, the ruling coalition was nearly ousted by voters who cited food and fuel price increases as their main concerns.

"It's the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years," said Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. "It's a big deal and it's obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there's more political fallout to come."

Indeed, as it roils developing nations, the spike in commodity prices -- the biggest since the Nixon administration -- has pitted the world's poorer south against the relatively wealthy north, adding to demands for reform of rich nations' farm and environmental policies. But experts say there are few quick fixes to a crisis tied to so many factors, from strong demand for food from emerging economies such as China's to rising oil prices to the diversion of food resources to make biofuels.

There are no scripts on how to handle the crisis, either. In Asia, governments are putting in place measures to limit hoarding of rice after some shoppers panicked at price increases and bought up everything they could.

Even in Thailand, which produces 10 million more tons of rice than it consumes and is the world's largest rice exporter, supermarkets have placed signs limiting the amount of rice shoppers are allowed to buy.

But there is also plenty of nervousness and confusion about how best to proceed and just how bad the impact may ultimately be, particularly as already strapped governments struggle to keep up their food subsidies.

"This is a perfect storm," President Elias Antonio Saca of El Salvador said Wednesday at the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Cancun, Mexico.

"How long can we withstand the situation? We have to feed our people, and commodities are becoming scarce. This scandalous storm might become a hurricane that could upset not only our economies but also the stability of our countries."

In Asia, if Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia steps down, which is looking increasingly likely amid postelection turmoil within his party, he may be that region's first high-profile political casualty of fuel and food price inflation.

In Haiti, where three-quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day and one in five children is chronically malnourished, the one business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically only consumed by the most destitute.

"It's salty and it has butter and you don't know you're eating dirt," said Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, who has taken to eating them more often in recent months. "It makes your stomach quiet down."

But the grumbling in Haiti these days is no longer confined to the stomach. It is now spray-painted on walls of the capital and shouted by demonstrators.

Meanwhile, most of the poorest of the poor suffer silently, too weak for activism or too busy raising the next generation of hungry. In the sprawling slum of Haiti's Cite Soleil, Placide Simone, 29, offered one of her five offspring to a stranger. "Take one," she said, cradling a listless baby and motioning toward four rail-thin toddlers, none of whom had eaten that day. "You pick. Just feed them."

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