US Chickens Steal Jobs From - Haiti?

When Americans say 'no' to dark meat, cheap drumsticks flood other lands.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Bernard Mayard sells frozen chicken drumsticks. His small corner store is all that is left of a once thriving chicken farm forced into bankruptcy by those same drumsticks.

The problem is that the United States is flooding Haiti - and lands as far away as Russia - with dark-meat chicken parts spurned by Americans favoring white.

It's a reverse twist on workers in rich America lamenting the loss of jobs because of cheap foreign imports. In Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, this cheap American import is taking thousands of jobs away from Haitian workers.

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"It's globalization, and I'm resigned to that, but globalization has killed the chicken industry in Haiti," says Mr. Mayard, who is working to pay off a $200,000 debt from shutting down his farm in 1997.

Why don't American chickens stay home to roast?

Since the early 1990s, Americans' increased demand for chicken breasts has left US broiler producers with an enormous surplus of drumsticks, necks, wings, backs, and feet.

So US producers have turned to markets in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Haiti, with its wide-open ports and near-zero tariff, has provided a seemingly perfect home for America's chicken scraps.

But the chicken imports, many say, have destroyed a burgeoning local industry.

In 1991 the country boasted three major broiler farms producing 100,000 to 250,000 broilers per month, 20 medium-size farms producing less than 50,000, and 262 small farms producing under 6,000 broilers a month, according to the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture. Today not one of these farms is left.

Nearly 300 broiler chicken farms, most of them single-family micro-enterprises, have shut down in the past three years. Thousands of workers in related activities, such as small grain farmers, have also lost their jobs.

The first poultry parts began entering Haiti in November 1994, after a US-led United Nations force invaded the country to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. The UN operation ended a three-year trade embargo and reopened Haiti's ports.

At the time, the country's chicken industry was producing close to 6 million live broilers a year, and producers were moving to increase production capacity. This September, Haiti's leading poultry producer, Prinsa, is shutting down its farm after nearly 20 years of operation. In 1996, Armory, the country's second-largest broiler farm, also went bankrupt.

Some say the principal problems facing Haiti's livestock industry are the absence of state regulation, and the government's unwillingness to give the poultry industry a certain level of protection.

"Generally we protect something that works," says a high-level official from the Ministry of Commerce, who prefers that his name not be used. "There are two aspects: The state has to protect people who produce efficiently, but, on the other hand, we have to protect the consumers." He says poultry producers have been unable to fill local demand at competitive prices.

For a population with an estimated per capita income of $350 a year, the imported low-cost chicken parts allow more Haitians to eat meat and have access to protein. The government is under pressure to fight inflation and provide certain basic food items at affordable prices, the Commerce official says.

Canada has established a 284 percent import tariff on US poultry parts. Mexico's tariff is at 234 percent. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, both markets must open up and rescind these taxes by 2005.

In 1995 the Haitian government set the tariff for most imports, including poultry, at a maximum of 5 percent. Local experts say the government was pressured by international donor agencies and the International Monetary Fund to eliminate trade barriers.

But other Caribbean countries have retained a level of protection for their local poultry industries. Both Jamaica and the Dominican Republic have thriving poultry industries several times the size of Haiti's.

In 1998 Haiti is importing an average of 3.5 million pounds of frozen chicken parts and turkey wings each month, according to US Customs statistics compiled by the Journal of Commerce. This represents the local equivalent of an annual production of 12 million chickens, twice Haiti's 1991 production.

The cost of Haiti's laissez faire policy in terms of direct losses from the industry's collapse is estimated at nearly 2,000 jobs. The loss in related activities is estimated at twice that number, say industry experts. Twelve thousand tons of grains that went for poultry-feed manufacturing no longer has a guaranteed market.

Could Haiti's chicken industry be revitalized? Some experts say yes, but only if the government takes immediate protective measures.

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