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Starving Haitians riot as food prices soar

By Leonard Doyle in Washington
Thursday, 10 April 2008

Demonstrators have tried to storm the presidential palace in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, as protests over hunger and rising food prices spread across the developing world.

Demanding the resignation of President René Préval, the protesters attempted to break through the palace gates before being driven back by a contingent of Brazilian United Nations peacekeepers who used tear gas and rubber bullets.

The prices of basic foods such as rice, beans, condensed milk and fruit have risen by more than 50 per cent in Haiti, where the poor even rely on biscuits made of mud to get through the day. Even the price of this traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs has gone up to more than $5 (£2.50) for 100 biscuits.

There is now a grave danger of a coup being triggered in what is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Rising costs of commodities and basic foodstuffs have brought immense hardship to the population, 80 per cent of whom survive on less than £1 a day and only a minority has paid full-time jobs.

And it’s not just in Haiti where unrest is growing. A combination of high fuel prices, booming consumption of food in increasingly wealthy Asia, the use of crops for biofuels, and speculation on futures markets have driven commodity prices to record levels.

The rising food prices are causing waves of unrest around the world. In Manila, troops armed with M-16 rifles now oversee the sale of subsidised rice, the latest basic crop to see a spike in prices. In Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cameroon there have been protests in recent weeks all related to the food and fuel prices.

Last night a desperate appeal by President Préval, who was elected in 2006, failed to restore order to the shattered capital. “The solution is not to go around destroying stores,” he said. “I’m giving you orders to stop.”

His first public comments on the crisis came nearly a week into the protests. With his job on the line, he urged congress to cut taxes on imported food.

But gunfire rang out around the palace after the speech, as peacekeepers tried to drive away people looting surrounding stores.

Some of the world’s most populous countries are now increasingly vulnerable to higher food prices, with the cost of rice now rising in line with that of other grains such as wheat and corn. As food insecurity spreads, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is warning of tense times ahead because the shortages of basic commodities and high prices are expected to continue. There are only eight to 12 weeks of cereal stocks in the world and grain supplies are at their lowest since the 1980s.

Jacques Diouf, the director of the FAO, said: “There is a risk that this unrest will spread in countries where 50 to 60 per cent of income goes to food.” The cause, he said, was “higher demand from countries like India and China, where GDP grows at 8 to 10 per cent and the increase in income is going to food”. The UN fears that governments may be toppled and that food riots could spread, fanned by hunger, frustration and global television coverage.

The UN is helpless in the face of the spreading crisis and it can only advise governments to improve crop irrigation, storage facilities as well as infrastructure.

Since 2002 there has been a steady surge in global food prices. They rose 35 per cent in the year to the end of January, and since then prices have jumped by 65 per cent. According to the FAO’s world food index, dairy prices rose nearly 80 per cent and grain 42 per cent last year.

Worldwide wave of protest

Morocco

34 people were jailed in January for rioting over the rise in food prices.

Indonesia

10,000 demonstrated in Jakarta this week after soya bean prices rose 125 per cent in the past year.

Cameroon

24 people died and 1,600 people were arrested during food riots in February. Tax cuts and wage increases followed.

Egypt

A wave of protests led to four deaths this month, after food prices rose 40 per cent.

Pakistan

Thousands of troops have been deployed to guard rice supplies after rationing was introduced in January.