Poor Haitians Resort to Eating Dirt Mud Cakes

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Rising Food Costs Force Haiti’s Poor to Resort to Eating Dirt

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti

It was lunchtime in one of Haiti’s worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud. With food prices rising, Haiti’s poorest can’t afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies. Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country’s central plateau.

The mud has long been prized by pregnant women and children here as an antacid and source of calcium. But in places like Cite Soleil, the oceanside slum where Charlene shares a two-room house with her baby, five siblings and two unemployed parents, cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular meal.

Yolen Jeunky arranges dried mud cookies for sale in a bucket in Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Nov. 29, 2007. (Ariana Cubillos/ AP Photo)

“When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day,” Charlene said. Her baby, named Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the slim 6 pounds 3 ounces he weighed at birth.

Though she likes their buttery, salty taste, Charlene said the cookies also give her stomach pains. “When I nurse, the baby sometimes seems colicky too,” she said.

Food prices around the world have spiked because of higher oil prices, needed for fertilizer, irrigation and transportation. Prices for basic ingredients such as corn and wheat are also up sharply, and the increasing global demand for biofuels is pressuring food markets as well.

A woman dries mud cookies in the sun on the the roof of Fort Dimanche, once a prison, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Nov. 29, 2007. Rising prices and food shortages are threatening Haiti’s fragile stability, and the mud cookies, made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening, are one of very few options the poorest people have to stave off hunger. (Ariana Cubillos/ AP Photo)

The problem is particularly dire in the Caribbean, where island nations depend on imports and food prices are up 40 percent in places.

The global price hikes, together with floods and crop damage from the 2007 hurricane season, prompted the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency to declare states of emergency in Haiti and several other Caribbean countries. Caribbean leaders held an emergency summit in December to discuss cutting food taxes and creating large regional farms to reduce dependence on imports.

At the market in the La Saline slum, two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say.

The hand of a woman is covered in mud as she makes mud cookies on the roof of Fort Dimanche, Nov. 30, 2007. (Ariana Cubillos/ AP Photo)

Still, at about 5 cents apiece, the cookies are a bargain compared to food staples. About 80 percent of people in Haiti live on less than $2 a day and a tiny elite controls the economy.

Merchants truck the dirt from the central town of Hinche to the La Saline market, a maze of tables of vegetables and meat swarming with flies. Women buy the dirt, then process it into mud cookies in places such as Fort Dimanche, a nearby shanty town.

Carrying buckets of dirt and water up ladders to the roof of the former prison for which the slum is named, they strain out rocks and clumps on a sheet, and stir in shortening and salt. Then they pat the mixture into mud cookies and leave them to dry under the scorching sun.

The finished cookies are carried in buckets to markets or sold on the streets.

A reporter sampling a cookie found that it had a smooth consistency and sucked all the moisture out of the mouth as soon as it touched the tongue. For hours, an unpleasant taste of dirt lingered.

Assessments of the health effects are mixed. Dirt can contain deadly parasites or toxins, but can also strengthen the immunity of fetuses in the womb to certain diseases, said Gerald N. Callahan, an immunology professor at Colorado State University who has studied geophagy, the scientific name for dirt-eating.

Haitian doctors say depending on the cookies for sustenance risks malnutrition.

Yolen Jeunky prepares cookies made of dirt, water, salt and butter on the the roof of Fort Dimanche. (Ariana Cubillos/ AP Photo)

“Trust me, if I see someone eating those cookies, I will discourage it,” said Dr. Gabriel Thimothee, executive director of Haiti’s health ministry.

Marie Noel, 40, sells the cookies in a market to provide for her seven children. Her family also eats them.

“I’m hoping one day I’ll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these,” she said. “I know it’s not good for me.”

By JONATHAN M. KATZ Associated Press Writer
Jan 29, 2008
The Associated Press

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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The cost of food: facts and figures

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Explore the facts and figures behind the rising price of food across the globe.

The World Bank has announced emergency measures to tackle rising food prices around the world.

World Bank head Robert Zoellick warned that 100 million people in poor countries could be pushed deeper into poverty by spiralling prices.

The crisis has sparked recent food riots in several countries including Haiti, the Philippines and Egypt.

The World Bank endorsed Mr Zoellick’s “new deal” action plan for a long-term boost to agricultural production.

Emergency help would include an additional $10m (£5m) to Haiti, where several people were killed in food riots last week, and a doubling of agricultural loans to African farmers.

Starvation risk

Mr Zoellick’s proposals were endorsed by the World Bank’s steering committee of finance and development ministers at a meeting in Washington.

We have to put our money where our mouth is now so that we can put food into hungry mouths
Robert Zoellick
World Bank head

The World Bank and its sister organisation, the IMF, have held a weekend of meetings that addressed rising food and energy prices as well as the credit crisis upsetting global financial markets.

The leader of the International Monetary Fund last week said hundreds of thousands of people were at risk of starvation because of food shortages.

Prices have risen sharply in recent months, driven by increased demand, poor weather in some countries that has ruined crops and reduced production area, thanks to an increase in the use of land to grow crops for transport fuels.

The price of staple crops such as wheat, rice and corn have all risen, leading to an increase in overall food prices of 83% in the last three years, the World Bank has said.

GLOBAL FOOD PRICE RISES
Wheat: 130%
Soya: 87%
Rice: 74%
Corn: 31%
Time: Year to March 2008
Source: Bloomberg

The sharp rises have led to protests and unrest in many countries, including Egypt, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Indonesia.

In Haiti, protests last week turned violent, leading to the deaths of five people and the fall of the government.

Restrictions on rice exports have been put in place in major producing countries such as India, China, Vietnam and Egypt.

Importers such as Bangladesh, the Philippines and Afghanistan have been hit hard.

Rich urged to act

“We have to put our money where our mouth is now so that we can put food into hungry mouths,” Mr Zoellick said. “It’s as stark as that.”

He called for more aid to provide food to needy people in poor countries and help for small farmers. He said the World Bank was working to provide money for seeds for planting in the new season.

He also urged wealthy donor countries to quickly fill the World Food Programme’s estimated $500m (£250m) funding shortfall.

Mr Zoellick’s “New Deal for Global Food Policy” also seeks to boost agricultural policy in poor countries in the longer-term.

On Saturday, the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, warned of mass starvation and other dire consequences if food prices continued to rise sharply.

“As we know, learning from the past, those kind of questions sometimes end in war,” he said.

He said the problem could lead to trade imbalances that may eventually affect developed nations, “so it is not only a humanitarian question”.

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/business/7344892.stm

Published: 2008/04/14 11:02:54 GMT