Thursday, January 31, 2008

From dirt to dirt

"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.

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.

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

This is the article referred to in the next post down (the previous post chronologically). Lebanon and the Caribbean have this in common: Great inequality and a near total dependence on food exports, no productive sector and tourism in all its versions. The Lebanese are not yet eating dirt, except political dirt. But things will certainly deteriorate if drastic measures are not taken, as food and fuel prices will only rise. Last Sunday's riots against electricity cuts were triggered by long power cuts in some of the poorest areas of Beirut, and they left 7 dead and tens of wounded. Of course, there are political dimensions to the protest, inequality is a political issue, and it will be taken up by the opposition to put pressure on the government. This should give enough incentive to the government to start acting. In fact, and to my great surprise, the Minister of Economy and Trade, Sami Haddad de la tete de qui je me paye tout le temps, seems to have gotten the message. This article in Al Akhbar reports of an investigation (by the Ministry) that uncovered the dirty game of the flour mills cartel, who had submitted an inflated list of bakeries who should benefit from the subsidies on flour, some of which are closed, while others make cakes and not Arabic bread (the only subsidized bread). Apparently the Ministry will now subsidize the bakeries directly without going through the mills. That's a step in the right direction, but I have a small question that may seem irrelevant: Those people who have presented fake lists and who have swindled the state and stolen tens of millions of $, will they be taken to court? I know I shouldn't expect too much, but after all, its my money they have stolen.

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