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BON BON DE TERRES

Imagine sitting for lunch on a sunny afternoon in Haiti. One would expect a rich buffet of poulet aux noir or tassot, followed by beignets or Haitian cake. What if, instead, you were made to eat cookies made of dirt?

Haiti is a small Caribbean country that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic to its east. According to the United Nations Development Program, 24.7 percent of Haitians live in extreme poverty, which is defined as earning less than $1.25 per day[1]. However, the rate of extreme poverty declined since 2000.

Poverty has forced people to adopt the practice of geophagy, which is the practice of eating earth or clay. This has resulted in a bizarre adaptation of a childhood favorite – cookies. Now, what exactly are dirt cookies? They look a lot like regular pancakes or cookies, however, as the name suggests, they’re made of dirt. A recipe passed down for generations, women often spend entire days making them, with grandmothers and daughters nursing infants while mothers work the mix.

“The cookies themselves have zero nutrition value, but the kids seem to enjoy them, at least in front of others”- says a reporter in Haiti. The cookies not just lack sweetness but are also hard to swallow. “It stops the hunger,” said Marie-Carmelle Baptiste, 35, a producer, eyeing up her stock laid out in rows[2]. The reason why people are so fixated on eating these cookies is that they have been convinced that they are full of minerals and thus good for their health. But doctors say otherwise. The cookies have been consumed by pregnant women seeking calcium, a risky and medically unproven supplement for years, but now the cakes have become food for entire families. Long-term consumption of these biscuits has been reported to cause stomach pain, malnutrition and is not recommended by doctors[3]. Gerald Callahan, an immunology professor at Colorado State University who has studied geophagy, said mud can contain dangerous parasites or toxins. According to the UN, two-thirds of Haitians live on less than $1.25 a day and half are undernourished. “Food is available but people cannot afford to buy it,” said Prospery Raymond, country director of the UK-based aid agency Christian Aid[4].

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, is where dirt cookies were first introduced. In the 1800s, France occupied Haiti and the colonists built Fort Dimanche along Port-Au-Prince Bay. President François Duvalier converted the fort into a prison in the twentieth century, and crammed political opponents into 12 square foot cages, subjecting them to torturous conditions, resulting in 3,000 deaths[5]. It is here and in these circumstances that the origins of dirt cookies are reported. The Fort has since been converted into a national monument in 1987. The mixture of the dirt cookies itself consists of dirt (kaolin clay), water, salt, vegetable shortening, and occasionally sugar. Once the right proportions have been mixed, it is laid out in the open to dry. It has been reported that women buy the dirt for $5 a sack and if they don’t have money they are happy – indeed eager – to buy the dirt on credit[6]. If it rains or is cloudy, the cookies don’t dry and the women end up owing money for the dirt purchased.

Perhaps it becomes necessary to question why Haiti is so poor in the first place. There are some very obvious conditions to note in Haiti’s case: a long history of political oppression, soil erosion, lack of education and literacy and a large populace in a small country. The Haitian masses suffer some of the most debilitating and depressing misery of any people in the world. Yet, virtually all that misery is human-caused, in most cases, by a tiny minority inside and outside Haiti who have the wealth and power to control.

Even before the biggest natural disaster in Haiti’s history shook Port-au-Prince on the afternoon of 12 January 2010, the Caribbean nation of 10 million struggled to feed and shelter its expanding population. More than 1,000,000 families relied on international aid for daily necessities, as the capital sprawled with shanty cities designed by out of work farmhands who had migrated to the city in search of work. The earthquake in 2010 ravaged the city, worsening conditions further.

While Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, its culture and history are undeniably rich. Under French rule in the 1700s, Haiti was the wealthiest colony in the New World and represented more than a quarter of France’s economy. After an extended Haitian slave revolt defeated the French army in 1801 and destroyed the country, the newly independent nation became the first country in the New World to abolish slavery. Upon independence, France (and other nations like the United States) required Haiti to pay an outsized indemnity in order to be recognized as an independent state, in the fear that the Haitian revolution would encourage an American slave revolt. Already facing a weak start, Haiti’s fortunes ebbed further in the twentieth century, which brought three decades of poor occupation, multiple corrupt regimes, natural disasters, environmental devastation and the scourge of HIV. They were needed to pay an outsized indemnity to France or countries—including the United States— would have refused to acknowledge Haiti for concern that it’d encourage an American slave revolt.

In fact, Haiti remains a poorer country than the Dominican Republic[7], which shares the same island and geography with identical climatic conditions. Both Haiti and the Dominican Republic were occupied by the United States, but Haiti was occupied for much longer. An unstable and chaotic political situation prevented the Dominican republic from paying back debts, which forced the U.S government to occupy it. By the time the U.S. pulled out in 1934, Haiti’s institutions had atrophied. The following Duvalier regime interrupted what was otherwise a chronic period of relative political stability in Haiti. Francois “Papa Doc” and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986, and brought about massive changes to the country. Even when compared to other dictators, Francois Duvalier is considered especially narcissistic and sadistic, and Haiti under Duvalier was a place of chaos, repression, terror, trauma, and murder[8]. Francois Duvalier militarized his regime and created the Volunteers for National Security, or Tons Tons Macoutes, a paramilitary organization that Francois Duvalier used to support his regime and its power. The political violence associated with the Duvalier regime led to massive emigration, particularly among the professional classes. Thus, the Duvaliers left Haiti economically decimated and unstable, making it hard to lay down roots and build infrastructure henceforth. An unreliable business atmosphere has led to a lack of international investments as well.

Haiti’s first president is a former priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who announced candidacy in the 1990 election. Following a six-week campaign, during which he dubbed his followers the “Front National pour le Changement et la Démocratie” (National Front for Change and Democracy, or FNCD), Aristide was elected president in 1990 with 67 percent of the vote in what is generally recognized as the first honest election in Haitian history. However, just eight months into his presidency he was overthrown by a military coup.

In June 1993, the United Nations Security Council imposed an oil and arms embargo against Haiti to force Haiti’s military dictatorship to step aside and allow Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return to power. After continued pressure, the Haitian military leaders almost fell through, the embargo continued and Canadian warships, under a United States-led effort, plied the waters of the country to enforce the trade restrictions. In Sept 1994, UN forces were finally able to land in Haiti and enforce the deal to return Aristide to power.

Coming to the environmental factors, Haiti has a mountainous terrain, which has been ravaged by soil erosion. For the past two centuries, people have been cutting trees on their mountains without replanting. Now, when the monsoon hits with its four or five months of daily pounding rains, one can see the brown rivers torrent down the mountainsides and watch, helplessly, as Haiti’s little remaining soil flows out into the Caribbean. In a case study by Nathan C. Mcclintock, it had been observed that soil erosion and deforestation are endemic in Haiti because of centuries of agricultural exploitation, first under the colonial plantation system of intensive monocropping of export commodities such as cotton, indigo, and tobacco, and later by widespread harvesting of timber for the export market and expansion of peasant subsistence agriculture on marginal sloping land. Yields of the main crops are lower than those of any other country in the region and Haiti imports nearly all the products it consumes. One reason for this constant fall in agricultural output is erosion, which causes a loss in soil fertility. And in Haiti, soil erosion isn’t the only problem. Farming, as practiced in Haiti, eats away at the country’s soil capital.

But all hope is not lost as US ambassador to Haiti, Janet Sanderson took a personal interest in lessening the dependence on these cookies, and nutrition levels have improved since UN arrived in Haiti in 1994 as peacekeepers. The intention of the United Nation was to create a stable environment in the country, reform Haiti’s military and create an independent police force. The maximum size of the UN missions in Haiti has been just about seven thousand five hundred military members and civilian police drawn from dozens of nations. At times, 750 Canadian defense force members and one hundred Canadian civilian cops have served there. UN initiation has, in turn, reduced the consumption of dirt cookies. But the situation can still be improved.

Furthermore many non-profit organizations have set for Haiti as it needs all the help it can get.
So can you imagine, years of history raining down upon Haiti, not one but several reasons which lead Haiti to its current state, be it corrupt regimes or several geographical factors. All these chain of events leading people of this little country to eat DIRT. But as stated by Aristotle

– “Hope is a waking dream”.
By Harshit Sharma,
1st year undergraduate student, SRCC.

Refrences:
[1] https://projects.ncsu.edu/project/cnrint/Agro/PDFfiles/HaitiCaseStudy041903.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://projects.ncsu.edu/project/cnrint/Agro/PDFfiles/HaitiCaseStudy041903.pdf

>[2] Badger, E. (2018, January 18). Haiti Statistics. Retrieved January 13, 2020, from https://haitipartners.org/haiti-statistics/

[3] https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/eating-dirt. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/eating-dirt

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jul/29/food.internationalaidanddevelopment. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jul/29/food.internationalaidanddevelopment

[5] https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/fort-dimanche-dirt-cookies. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/fort-dimanche-dirt-cookies

[6] https://youtu.be/s3337cj4sJQ. (n.d.). [Video]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/s3337cj4sJQ

[7] https://www.newsweek.com/reasons-behind-haitis-poverty-70801. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/reasons-behind-haitis-poverty-70801

[8] Rey T. Catholicism and human rights in Haiti: Past, present, and future. Relig Hum Rights. 2006; 1(3): 229–248. DOI: 10.1163/187103206781172952 [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6748271/#B28. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6748271/#B28

[10] https://projects.ncsu.edu/project/cnrint/Agro/PDFfiles/HaitiCaseStudy041903.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://projects.ncsu.edu/project/cnrint/Agro/PDFfiles/HaitiCaseStudy041903.pdf
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