Armed thieves are threatening the viability of U.S. rice exports to Haiti, the largest foreign market for U.S. long grain milled rice. 

The thieves have stolen 500 metric tons of U.S. rice worth $300,000 over the past three weeks, and U.S. farmers and millers are hoping the government can quell the chaos and crime that has been gripping the country.

The situation has gotten so bad that the future of U.S. rice exports to Haiti — roughly 500,000 metric tons per year — is uncertain as exporters and the companies that provide insurance for shipments to Port-au-Prince weigh the risks of continuing to do business with importers there.

“That’s the bigger issue we’re trying to deal with going forward — trying to keep the insurance companies that we’ve been working with for years to continue to cover countries like Haiti when there are situations like this,” said Bobby Hanks, CEO of Louisiana-based Supreme Rice and chairman of the USA Rice Federation.

“That’s why it’s so important that the security situation improve. If it doesn’t, then we are going to lose these insurers, which would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for suppliers to ship product over there.” 

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home last week, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency and shut down much of the country, but violence and crime were escalating before Moïse was killed.

It was in the days before the attack on the president that armed men in skiffs boarded a ship carrying 15,000 tons of U.S. rice, grown and milled in Louisiana or Arkansas and sold to Haitian customers by Supreme Rice. The captain attempted to repel the robbers with a water cannon, but ultimately failed, Hanks told Agri-Pulse.

The rice was still in bulk form on the ship — it wouldn’t be bagged until later — so the thieves could not steal it yet. They were limited to taking whatever miscellaneous items they could carry back onto the skiffs.

Bobby Hanks

Bobby Hanks, USA Rice Federation

The riskiest leg of the journey for U.S. rice from mills in the American South to Haitian consumers is on trucks. 

Much of the rice that arrives in Haiti is bagged at the port and then loaded onto trucks that take to the grain to warehouses. There isn’t much warehouse space at the port in Port-au-Prince.

Supreme Rice has its own warehouse in Haiti, but the company also delivers directly to warehouses owned by its customers in Haiti.

And it's on that leg of the journey that thieves struck twice in June, says Hanks. 

Supreme hires armed guards to accompany the shipments on trucks — each truck carrying about 20 tons of rice — but it wasn’t enough to deter the criminals.

“You have gangs that are in control in certain areas,” said Hanks. “We had armed security, but (the thieves) still stopped the truck and hijacked the rice. The security team decided not to engage and surrendered the cargo. They stole all of the cargo off the trucks.”

In the June thefts, Haitian thieves made off with as much as 220 tons of rice grown in Louisiana and Arkansas fields.

It was enough to get the attention of lawmakers like Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., who began working on a letter to the U.S. State Department even before Moïse was assassinated. 

“While the continued theft of U.S. rice shipments causes export market and safety concerns, I am worried that this will further increase food insecurity in Haiti,” Higgins wrote in the letter that was eventually sent after the assassination. “I ask your help in working with the United Nations to intervene in Haiti and establish peace, or at the very least, better secure the delivery of all critical food inland to the people of Haiti to prevent worsening the humanitarian crisis just 1,900 miles from our shores.”

And it’s not just U.S. rice in the crosshairs of pirates. Twelve containers of rice from Guyana were stolen, according to USA Rice, which is monitoring the situation closely.

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Spokespersons for the White House and State Department say the U.S. government is assisting the Haitian government to investigate the assassination, but it’s unclear if the U.S. will agree to send troops to help bring calm to the nation that was already descending into chaos.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last Wednesday with Haiti's Acting Prime Minister, Claude Joseph, and stressed the “United States’ continued commitment to work with the government of Haiti in support of the Haitian people,” but on Friday a State Department spokesperson declined to comment on whether the U.S. would send troops to protect the country’s airports and shipping ports.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday the U.S. is “providing $5 million to strengthen the Haitian National Police capacity to work with communities to resist gangs.”

Supreme Rice spent last weekend loading another ship with rice that’s destined for Haiti, but it’s unclear if it can discharge in Port-au-Prince because of the lockdown, according to Hanks.

“We’re not sure what’s going to happen next,” he said. “You don’t know if it’s going to stabilize … or if it will tumble into complete chaos. We’re on pins and needles because it’s a powder keg that could go off at any moment.”

While Mexico is the largest foreign market for U.S. long grain rice, it primarily buys paddy rice, says Hanks. The fact that Haiti buys value-added milled rice makes it a more valuable market.

If it were to become impossible to get rice into Haiti, or companies refused to insure shipments there, the effect would be devastating both to Haitians — who need the grain — and to U.S. farmers.

“These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night,” Hanks said. “It would be catastrophic for our business.”

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