The Lives of Suburban Peasants: Agricultural Change and Mobility in Haiti

This dissertation develops a political ecology of suburban peasants to describe the lives of Haitian farmers residing in a neighborhood on the margins of Port-au-Prince. The category of suburban peasants has been well described for Chinese small-scale farmers but has yet to be applied elsewhere as an analytic category. Using participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and in-depth, key informant interviews, an ethnographic account is provided of changes in agricultural practices made by Haitian peasants as a result of environmental changes that impact their ability to make a living in contemporary Haiti. Farmers’ primary concerns are related to an increased need for agrochemicals because of declining soil fertility, but increased fertilizer prices make this a significant barrier to their economic activities. In addition, the influx of non-Haitians into the neighborhood has resulted in less available land to farm. In many cases worldwide, these two challenges have led to out-migration patterns, either within-country rural-urban migration or to another country altogether. Yet, in the study site this is not happening. The changes in agricultural practices that the Dounet peasants have made, like changing to wage-based labor and occupational multiplicity, have also created greater poverty, in which they are more vulnerable to the risks associated with environmental change while at the same time rendered immobile in the face of future extreme environmental events. This study uses the suburban peasant concept to explore how environmental changes simultaneously intersect with urbanization processes like the enclosure of land and changes in rural land use.

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Agrarian Change and Peasant Prospects in Haiti

Haiti is one of the poorest and most severely hunger-stricken countries in the world (GHI 2013). Its contradictions are jarring: although Haiti has the largest relative agrarian population in the Western Hemisphere and relatively less land inequality than the rest of the region (Smucker et al. 2000; Wiens and Sobrado 1998), it is extremely food insecure. Almost 90 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line (FAO 2014; IFAD 2014), and Haiti relies on food imports for 60 percent of national consumption (OXFAM 2010). Some scholars argue that the spread of commodity relations, persistent rural class differentiation, and dispossession mean that most peasants can no longer reproduce themselves outside of markets, having been transformed into petty commodity producers with many households depending upon some degree of off-farm earnings (Bernstein 2001; Araghi 1995). Others, however, claim that ‘de-peasantization’ is far from inevitable, and stress that peasants continue to persist with varying relations to markets, still constitute a large share of humanity, and are actively fighting to defend their livelihoods (Ploeg 2009; Borras and Edelman 2008; McMichael 2006). At the broadest level, this dissertation explores contemporary struggles facing Haitian peasants in the belief that while they face extremely adverse circumstances, their continuing decline is far from inevitable. On the contrary, this dissertation is premised on the conviction that improving the livelihoods of peasant farmers is fundamental to reducing poverty and food insecurity in Haiti. More specifically, the papers in this dissertation explore various key aspects of Haiti’s agriculture and food system, including dietary aspirations, an intensifying agro-export push, and competing visions for rural development in the wake of the disastrous 2010 earthquake. Individually and collectively, considerable attention is given to some of the enduring legacies of the colonial period, and the interconnections between race, class, and food, while being sure to situate the cultural dimensions of peasant problems in their political economic context. This includes focusing heavily on the role played by dominant ‘development’ actors in Haiti (the foreign donor community; NGOs; the state; transnational corporations; domestic agribusinesses and merchant elites) and their relations with peasants in the post-earthquake period. The foundation of this dissertation is extensive field research conducted between November 2010 and July 2013 in a commune in Haiti’s Artibonite Department, the most important food producing part of the country. Field research involved a range of qualitative methods, including interviews, focus groups, and participant observation. My hope is that this dissertation offers a rich, deeply grounded contribution into some of the most crucial issues influencing agrarian change and food security in Haiti today, and provides valuable insights into agrarian change and peasant livelihoods and struggles in Haiti and beyond.

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