Year 501 Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Previous segment | Next segment | Contents | Overview | Archive | ZNet

Chapter Nine

The Burden of Responsibility

1. Irrational Disdain

As the US proceeded to "assume, out of self-interest, responsibility for the welfare of the world capitalist system" after World War II, it also extended the "experiments in pragmatism" that it had been conducting in its narrower domains to "accelerate the process of national growth and save much waste" (Gerald Haines, Ulysses Weatherby). One striking feature of the "scientific methods of development" designed for our wards is what Hans Schmidt calls the "irrational disdain for the agricultural experience of local peasants." This was the source of "a series of disastrous failures" as US experts attempted to apply "the latest developments in scientific agriculture" to their Haitian testing area -- as always, sincerely believing that they were doing good while (by the sheerest accident) benefiting US corporations. A 1929 study found that "Haitian peasants were growing cotton more successfully than American plantations which employed the latest scientific methods," Schmidt observes. The chief US agricultural expert reported to the State Department that US ventures "had failed because promoters had been unwilling to study the techniques employed by local people who had, through generations of practical experience, developed locally viable methods," which enabled the natives to raise cotton more successfully than the plantations that were "scientifically cultivated."1

The story continued after the government was handed over to Haitian overseers. In 1941, the Haitian-American Company for Agricultural Development (SHADA) was set up as an aid project under the guidance of US agronomists, who dismissed the advice and protests of Haitian experts with the usual contempt. With millions of dollars of US government credits, SHADA undertook to raise sisal and rubber, needed at the time for war purposes. The project acquired 5 percent of Haiti's finest agricultural lands, expelling 40,000 peasant families, who, if lucky, might be rehired as day laborers. After four years of production, the project harvested a laughable five tons of rubber. It was then abandoned, in part because the market was gone. Some peasants returned to their former lands, but were unable to resume cultivation because the land had been ruined by the SHADA project. Many could not even find their own fields after trees, hills and bushes had been bulldozed away.

"Haitian objections to U.S. aid projects sound paranoid," Amy Wilentz remarks after reviewing this not untypical instance.2 Sometimes, however, there really is a man with an ax chasing the fellow with the irksome complaint.

In 1978, US experts became concerned that swine fever in the Dominican Republic might threaten the US pig industry. The US initiated a $23 million extermination and restocking program aimed at replacing all of the 1.3 million pigs in Haiti, which were among the peasants' most important possessions, even considered a "bank account" in case of need. Though some Haitian pigs had been found to be infected, few had died, possibly because of their remarkable disease-resistance, some veterinary experts felt. Peasants were skeptical, speculating that the affair had been staged so that "Americans could make money selling their pigs." The program was initiated in 1982, well after traces of disease had disappeared. Two years later, there were no pigs in Haiti.

Peasants regarded this as "the very last thing left in the possible punishments that have afflicted us." A Haitian economist described the enterprise as "the worst calamity to ever befall the peasant," even apart from the $600 million value of the destroyed livestock: "The real loss to the peasant is incalculable... [The peasant economy] is reeling from the impact of being without pigs. A whole way of life has been destroyed in this survival economy." School registration dropped 40-50 percent and sales of merchandise plummeted, as the marginal economy collapsed. A USAID-OAS program then sent pigs from Iowa -- for many peasants, confirming their suspicions. These were, however, to be made available only to peasants who could show that they had the capital necessary to feed the new arrivals and to house them according to specifications. Unlike the native Haitian pigs, the Iowa replacements often succumbed to disease, and could survive only on expensive feed, at a cost that ran up to $250 a year, a huge sum for impoverished peasants. One predictable result was new fortunes for the Duvalier clique and their successors who gained control of the feed market. A Church-based Haitian development program that had sought to deal with the problems abandoned the effort as "a waste of time." "These pigs will never become acclimated to Haiti... Next they'll ask us to install a generator and air conditioning."3

Other experiments have often turned out the same way. In his study of another long-time "testing area," Liberia, anthropologist Gordon Thomasson found the same "irrational disdain" for native intellectual achievement, and the same severe costs -- for the locals. Over the centuries, the Kpelle had developed hundreds of varieties of rice that were matched precisely to microenvironments in particular ecosystems; dozens of different seeds might be planted in a small field, with very high yields. US agronomists advised capital-intensive "green revolution" techniques using petrochemical inputs which, apart from being far too costly for a poor country, bring lower yields and loss of the traditional knowledge and the wide variety of seeds that have been bred, selected, diversified, and maintained over centuries. Thomasson estimates that agricultural productivity will be cut by as much as 50 percent if the rich genetic pool of rice varieties, "the product of centuries of self-conscious breeding and selection," is lost and replaced by foreign inputs: "many areas of rural Liberia will for all intents and purposes cease to exist, and so will many of Liberia's indigenous cultures."

Go to the next segment.

1 Schmidt, US Occupation, 16, 181.

2 Wilentz, Rainy Season, 271-2.

3 Farmer, AIDS, 37ff.