Pigs in Haiti: more than bacon-to-be, they're a bank account

THE arrival of seven piglets has made Lamothe Pilier a woman of substance in this southern region of steep, terraced agriculture and thatched huts. Fattened and sold, the swine could make it possible for this sturdy mother of five to purchase what she's dreamed about for years -- a cistern.

Then, she says, she wouldn't have to carry home jugs of water over the paths that link this region to the outside world, nor would she have to continue to spend nearly all the family's cash income -- $7 a month -- for water delivery by mule.

Mrs. Pilier's pigs are part of a nationwide program to revive a peasant way of life lost when the developed and the third worlds collided here.

The controversial pig story is quintessentially Haitian -- at once symbolizing heartbreak economics, perseverant if anachronistic Haitian hoe-and-machete subsistence farming, voodoo, international politics, and even the fall of President Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Haiti's entire 1.2 million population of black pigs was eradicated in 1982. African swine fever is believed to have killed two-thirds of the animals, and a United States-Mexican-Canadian-Dominican program paid $23 million to have the remaining pigs slaughtered before the disease could threaten the pork industry of other countries in the Western Hemisphere.

US Agency for International Development (AID) funding for the program that's now involved in repopulating Haiti with pigs ends this month, but an extension is being sought to continue to bring the current 40,000 pig population back to its 1.2 million level, AID officials say.

With the 1982 eradication of the pigs went all the accumulated wealth of the Haitian peasant majority, explains Georges Werleigh, a Haitian agricultural economist. It was such an economic catastrophe for this nation that Haitians are amazed to hear that Americans are generally unaware of it.

``The pig was viewed as a bank deposit for the peasant in a noncash economy,'' Mr. Werleigh explains. Peasants would tie up the young piglet in a field and let it eat household waste products, then use waste from the pigs to fertilize crops. Typically, the peasant sold the adult pig for five or six times what he bought it for -- $100 on average -- in September, to send children to school, or at other times to meet emergency needs, he says. (The average annual cash income for peasants is placed variously at $80 to $100, which shows the importance of the pig to the peasant economy.)

A drop in rural school attendance, placed at between 25 percent and 50 percent, corresponds to the pig eradication, development officials say. The peasants' ability to feed themselves dropped too, they add.

The increased hunger in this already-impoverished nation, some observers say, was a component of the widespread unrest that ultimately toppled the Duvalier government in February. Peasants largely did not understand the reason for the eradication of the pigs, which were killed as suspected disease carriers, even if individual animals did not show symptoms of swine fever.

Further, the introduction of a white pig to replace the traditional Haitian black pig adds another element of misunderstanding. The black pig, a scrawny but tough breed, had long been a required sacrificial animal for Haitian voodoo gods -- and the powerful influence of voodoo in rural Haiti is not to be underestimated. Voodoo doctrine suggests that if you can't pacify the gods through prescribed methods, your life may suffer as a result.

Pilier's pigs were given to her as part of a nationwide pig repopulation program. Though many development agencies are helping with it, the largest program is funded by AID and run by the Organization of American States' Interamerican Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA).

Her pigs are the second generation of white pigs brought to the island from the US. IICA raises a sort of ``high-tech pig'' in a Port-au-Prince scientific breeding program designed to produce the fattest and most fertile pigs possible, explains Vince Cusumano, chief of agriculture and rural development for the AID mission here.

Piglets from that breeding center are then sent to 350 ``secondary multiplication'' centers around the country. These centers are usually cooperative projects, set up by church missionaries who train peasants in breeding and maintaining white pigs.

Pilier's pigs came from one of these IICA secondary multiplication centers run by a cooperative group started 10 years ago to improve the local infrastructure.

Through a form of noncash banking created by the international development community, Pilier will repay the coop with a portion of her fattened pigs. These pigs' offspring will then be given away in a similar fashion to other peasants, who will repay with piglets born to them.

This method of reproduction and distribution -- using a total of 5,000 sows -- is expected to produce 50,000 pigs in the next year, says Percy Aitken, head of the IICA project.

Further, he says, development agencies hope to maintain the structure of the secondary multiplication centers for future cooperative agricultural programs.

In this economy, a pig is as highly prized as a job, and peasants are showing enthusiasm for the new animals -- which weigh about 200 pounds when full grown in the IICA special-feeding program.

This ability to reproduce a healthy white pig, however, is where some of the program's toughest criticism is aimed. The peasant cannot afford to maintain ideal conditions, nor can the new breed survive normal conditions on a peasant farm, critics say.

Though Pilier is excited about having the pigs, she explains that the new methods she is expected to use in raising them ``are like slavery to the pig.'' Before 1982, by just tying up a few black pigs down the mountain from her home, she says, ``I was able to send five children to school in Port-au-Prince.''

An illiterate who doesn't completely understand the techniques of modern pig-raising, she keeps her piglets in a roofed pen now -- even though she doesn't understand the reason. She must sweep the floor of the pen the same way she tends to the mud floor of her own home, and large amounts of water must be carted in to keep the pigs clean and watered.

``The new pig requires an investment in a pen and in water which some of these people can't even get for themselves, let alone for pigs,'' says agricultural economist Werleigh.

But, says Mr. Cusumano of AID, critics have misunderstood the mission of the pig repopulation project. ``We have been breeding to maximize the litter size for repopulation,'' he says, adding that the peasant is not expected to reproduce these conditions.

``In the country, the adult pig used to be 45 pounds. Our adults are now 200 pounds. Over time, the peasant won't be able to do what we're doing, and we don't expect them to,'' says Cusumano. ``Instead of 10 per litter, they'll get 6. Instead of a litter twice a year, it'll be every two years.''

And as for the new pig's ability to survive, says IICA's Mr. Aitken, ``these pigs are like any other. . . . They'll eat anything.''

AID officials cite the cases of 2,000 pigs given away as ``sentinels'' to test whether swine fever had been eliminated immediately after the pig-eradication program of 1982.

These imported pigs were given straight to the peasants and have survived to account for half the current pig population of 40,000.

But, says Werleigh, who echoes some of the disdainthis country has for outside interference, ``the program frustrates the peasant because he sees the ideal conditions but isn't given the means [money or education] to re-create them.''

He adds that larger commercial farmers have started to get involved in raising pork here and that the potential exists to wipe out the peasant market only now getting restarted.

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