Conversations with the Living: The Haitian AIDS Crisis

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Of Pigs and Men: Revisiting the Creole Pig Disaster

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Violence takes many forms. Ask any Haitian. Sometimes it assumes a physical manifestation – a punch, a kick, the slice of a knife, or the shot of a gun. Other times, it assumes the more abstract form of structural violence as first espoused by Johann Galtung and later by Paul Farmer and Philippe Bourgois and characterized by a set of conditions that indirectly result in physical and mental harm. Many other times, the violence falls somewhere in between, as in the case of what is commonly referred to as the Creole Pig Disaster.

While a disproportionate percentage of the Haitian population resides in its city centers, the majority of country still consists of rural hamlets where livestock plays important and versatile roles. In this environment, a good pig is worth its weight in gold.

All over the globe and throughout history, pigs have been recognized as Nature’s jack-of-all-trades farming utility. As scavengers, they consumed a large variety of human and domestic wastes, ate weeds, wild plants, and roots, and often went after all sorts of worms and insects that might infest gardens and farms. They also served as sources of food – though it was often a hard decision whether they were more valuable as tools or food.

Haitian farmers were no different and relied heavily on their pigs. Quite often, a good pig symbolized a source of prosperity. It was said that the domestic pig served as the rural Haitian’s bank account. It was a tangible source of value that could be sold, traded, or used in place of money. That was why the U.S. Government‘s insistence on the slaughter of all Haitian pigs in May 1982 was such a source of pain, devastation, and suspicion.

Here’s some context.

African swine fever struck the eastern side of the Dominican Republic in 1978. In 1979, the disease appeared in the Haitian Artibonite region. The disease presumably travelled via the Artibonite river which physically connects Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Usually, the mortality rate for the disease hovers around 99% but as chance would have it, the strain of the fever that emerged in Haiti was far less virulent and many pigs survived or were not infected. The outbreak on the island peaked in 1980.

It was not until 1982 that the United States – citing fears that the outbreak spread to American farms – demanded the slaughter of all Haitian pigs and of course, when the superpower of the region makes a demand, a tiny nation like Haiti has no choice but to comply. And so it did – amid the protestations of Haiti’s hard-working and perpetually impoverished farmers who made their case against the slaughter.

The country has been rife with rumours that the pigs were sacrificed for no good reason, and may Haitians have questioned whether the disease was even threatening their pigs. Among villagers discussing the pig eradication programme, some said it was unneccessary; that there had been no disease, that it was a plot. After all, their black pigs had lived for 500 years uner extremely poor conditions and had become immune to most diseases… It was perfectly adapted to some of the most miserable raising conditions in the world and could go days without food. (Bernard Diederich, “Swine Fever Ironies”)

As a way of “helping” Haitian farmers, the United States orchestrated the importation of American pigs (all bought and paid for) to fill Haiti’s farms. Unfortunately, the pink American pigs were so fragile and unaccustomed to the Haitian terrain that most of them died. The ones that survived could not roam free. Yes, they were pigs, but they were different types that thrived within small pens. As a result, Haitian farmers with little or no money had to somehow pay for the construction of pens made for these types of pigs. Presumably, American know-how was employed (and paid) in the process. Making matters worse, the new pigs were not scavengers like old Creole pigs. On the contrary they needed to be fed very specific feed that farmers had no choice to buy from – you guessed it – American corporations. The pig food was so expensive that it was commonly said that the pigs ate better than their owners. And after all that, Haitian farmers concluded it would take years for the delicate pink American pigs to become “Haitianised,” if it happened at all.

The slaughtering of Haiti’s pigs resulted in much bitterness and further exacerbated the country’s impoverishment. Over 13 months, roughly $23,000,000 was wasted on the eradication. One American veterinarian involved in the re-population program said, “In monetary terms, it’s a loss to the Haitian peasant of $600,000,000.”

In the end, the loss was incalculable. A Haitian economist put it best when he said that as a result of America’s actions, Haiti’s peasant economy was “reeling from the impact of being without pigs. A while way of life has been destroyed in this survival economy… This is the worst calamity to ever befall the peasant.”

Whether it was a conspiracy or not is debatable – as conspiracies tend to be. However, what is not debatable is that American Agri-business benefited monetarily from the Creole pig disaster and its aftermath while the Haitian peasant lost what little money he had.

– Marc L.

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