HINCHE – Several thousands farmers marched in this city to protest against the government of President Rene Preval and the involvement of multinational company Monsanto in Haiti’s rural areas.
The demonstration came in response to the announcement that Monsanto will distribute some 475 tons of maize to Haitian farmers in cooperation with Project Winner, a USAID initiative, which aims to increase the country’s agricultural productivity.
Wearing red shirts and straw hats sprayed in signs against Preval and Monsanto, people from all districts gathered at the center Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) – a farming cooperative and one of the leading organizations in Haiti’s peasant movement. Hundreds more joined the rally in Hinche’s central square, where under a scorching sun demonstrators chanted “Down with Preval,” “Keep Monsanto Out of Haiti” and the occasional “Down with the Occupation.”
“The Haitian government is using the earthquake to sell the country to the multinationals,” said Jean Baptiste Chavannes, coordinator of the MPP movement and one of the rally’s organizers. Speaking from a stage, he symbolically set Monsanto seeds on fire and handed out packets of local seeds to the cheering crowd.
“We have to fight for our local seeds,” Chavannes told them. “We have to defend our food sovereignty.”
The Hinche rally underscores the precarious nature of Haiti’s political and social fabric since the January earthquake destroyed the country’s largest city, Port-au-Prince.
It also raises the prickly issue of product dumping on a people who already feel vulnerable because of the level of devastation brought on by the earthquake, which killed an estimated 300,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.
Preval has been under attack from the tattered opposition that has managed to stage weekly protest in front of the crumbled national palace every Monday. Opposition leaders have vowed to protest until Preval say definitively that he will leave office when his term expires in February, although he didn’t take office until May because of delays in that election in 2006.
Organizers estimated the number of demonstrators to reach several thousands, saying they gave away all the 10,000 hats they had made for the event. Delegations from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, the Unites States and representatives of international peasant movement “La Via Campesina” also came to show solidarity with Haitian farmers.
“This is not just about the seeds,” said Samuel Smith, a 74 year-old organic farmer and long-date supporter of local agriculture, who came for the rally from Massachusetts. “It’s about imposing on people a system that they can’t get out of.”
Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture neglected to inform farmers about the risks associated with growing hybrid, genetically modified or treated seeds, MPP’s Chavannes said. Representatives of the peasant movement fear Monsanto will take advantage of Haiti’s fragile situation and corrupt political leaders to support such products, as they have in the past for instance in Indonesia.
“The seeds Monsanto is donating to Haiti are not genetically modified,” a Monsanto spokesperson said. “They are conventional hybrid seeds that are already grown in the Dominican Republic.”
Monsanto donated $ 255,000 to Haiti for disaster relief and the company is committed to the success of Haitian farmers, Monsanto Executive Vice President Jerry Stein wrote in a letter to Haiti’s Minister of Agriculture Joanas Gue.
People in Haiti don’t know much about Monsanto, participants in the rally admitted, but groups like the MPP and six other organizations of Haitian farmers in attendance have been working on warning local peasants about Monsanto’s donation, including by screening educational documentaries.
Though the seeds were donated by the company, they are already being sold in Port-au-Prince. Haiti does not have a law regulating the use of genetically modified organisms.
“This is a gift of death,” Jean Baptiste said of Monsanto’s offer. “It’s an attack on peasant agriculture, on the farmers, on biodiversity, on native seeds, on what remains of our environment in Haiti.”
While alternating between slogans against Monsanto and Preval, most participants at the Hinche rally also came out to show their discontent with the government.
“I’m here because I’m angry with Preval,” said Pierre Charite, a 61 year-old farmer from Haiti’s central plateu, where he grows maize, plantains, sugarcane and pistachios. “He accepted corn that is bad, that will kill Haitian corn. I won’t use that.”
“The government will have to take notice of this,” said Ronel Odette, a local radio commentator impressed by the large turnout at the protest. “Today it’s in Hinche, tomorrow it will be somewhere else. This is really a national movement.”