Haitians Tense after Food Prices Spark Riot

A 40 percent rise in food prices globally is being deeply felt in impoverished Haiti, where most people live on less than $2 a day. Aid organizers say a World Bank pledge of $10 million along with government subsidies for rice may be too little to ease Haitians' anger.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Around the world, food is becoming more and more expensive. The World Bank says in the past three years, global food prices have risen by more than 80 percent. And the bank is warning that 100 million people could risk starvation.

Late today, the Bush administration ordered an additional $200 million in emergency food aid for Africa and other parts of the world. Price hikes on basic commodities are setting off unrest. Egypt, Indonesia, and Mozambique have all seen riots. Last week in Haiti, demonstrators stormed the presidential palace. And over the weekend, lawmakers fired the prime minister.

NPR's Julie McCarthy is in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince and she sent this report.

JULIE McCARTHY: A week of hunger provoked protests in Haiti left a swath of destruction and at least six people dead. A facility of the U.N. peacekeeping force, there is a contingent of 9,000 here, was ransacked 12 days ago and a peacekeeper shot dead on the streets of Port-au-Prince Saturday.

The same day, the senate ousted Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, an ally President Rene Preval. As the premiere was being expelled, the president announced plans to cut the cost of a sack of imported rice from $51 to $43.

(Soundbite of woman shouting)

McCARTHY: Amid the hawking at the Sunday market in the city of Petionville, just outside of Port-au-Prince, the reality of the poorest country in the hemisphere comes into vivid focus. The sun-drenched detritus of rotten food and garbage carpets this bustling strip where vendors sell the basic food stuffs that are now the subject of riots from Africa to Asia.

Merchants report that beans, condensed milk and some vegetables have risen by more than 50 percent in Haiti, where the poor even rely on biscuits made of dirt to get through the day. A small container of rice that's sold for 40 cents is now selling for 80 cents, a whopping amount in a country where the majority lives on less than $2 a day.

The lack of money to buy basic food is causing, if not a state of famine, certainly hunger.

Louisina Shary(ph), a willowy mother of four, stands before the rice and beans she sells, and speaks of the hardship on her family.

Ms. LOUISINA SHARY (Vendor, Port-au-Prince): (Speaking in foreign language)

McCARTHY: Yes, my children are hungry, she says. Things are too expensive. I can't give them food even if I sell all my merchandise. With the profits I get, I can't feed them on it. It's too little, she says.

Analysts attribute the spike in food prices to several global phenomenon; growing demand from countries like China, the rising price of oil, and the increased production of biofuels.

Economist Fritz Jean is the former head of Haiti Central Bank. He says the situation has been exacerbated by Haiti's over reliance on imported food. Jean says 80 percent is brought into the country.

Mr. FRITZ JEAN (Economist; Former Haiti Central Bank Governor): The increase in international prices has only worsened our already complicated situation. In fact, when ones they're worrying, it didn't happen before now.

McCARTHY: Fritz Jean says Haiti needs some 30 to $40 billion in international aid to make it through this crisis that's been spawned by the skyrocketing cost of food. He says France, the World Bank, and the United States have offered amounts that total about half of that.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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