The escalation of gang violence in Haiti is threatening the ability of the United States to export grain to the country, which is the largest foreign market for U.S. milled long grain rice.

Trade resumed after violence and theft in Haiti temporarily put a halt to U.S. rice exports last year, but it's unclear how long ships can keep delivering U.S. rice as chaos engulfs the country, Bobby Hanks, CEO of Louisiana-based Supreme Rice and chair of the USA Rice Federation’s International Trade Policy Committee, tells Agri-Pulse.

Supreme is loading a vessel with 15,000 metric tons of rice in New Orleans and the ship is destined to stop in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien, but success depends on there being enough skilled staff at the ports to unload the grain.

Stevedores – the ones who haven’t fled the country – face constant danger just getting from their homes to the docks every morning, says Hanks.

“The number-one problem is security – having people take the risk and go to work is a challenge,” he said. “You can imagine: You’ve got a vessel showing up. You’ve got to unload the vessel and bag the rice. You need labor to do all of that in a lot of cases, skilled labor.”

But the gang violence gripping the country appears to be intensifying.

The State Department, citing kidnapping, crime and civil unrest, on July 27 ordered some U.S. government employees and all family members of government employees to leave Haiti.

“Haiti right now is a complete disaster,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said last week during a Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee hearing. “It's about as bad a situation as any on the planet. It doesn't get the attention I believe it deserves, but I know of few places on Earth right now that are confronting the challenges that they're facing. Despite Haiti's long history of problems and challenges, this is probably as bad as it's been in a long time.” 

Supreme Rice has an operation in Haiti, including bagging equipment, warehouses and skilled laborers, but Hanks said some of those employees have been taking advantage of a new White House policy that offers refugee status to Haitians that make it to the Mexican border.

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“We have lost a few of our skilled workers – technicians who operate the bagging equipment – so we’re having to train new ones,” Hanks said.

It could be a lasting problem, says USA Rice Federation Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Peter Bachmann.

“Despite the turmoil in Haiti, demand for U.S. rice continues and exports continue to move to the country,” he told Agri-Pulse. “Unfortunately, safety and financial exchange issues continue to have a negative impact on U.S. rice exports and the exodus of skilled laborers from the country could have long-term impacts on critical food import and shipping infrastructure within Haiti.”

Historically, the U.S. has exported more than $200 million worth of rice to Haiti annually and, for now, vessels are continuing to deliver.

“They’re our number-one market for milled rice and we can’t abandon them, so we’re doing everything we can to continue to help,” Hanks said. “We’ve got a ship loading right now. We’re going to continue to load ships until we can’t anymore.”

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This story has been updated to reflect the correct timing of the latest Supreme Rice shipment to Haiti.