Rising prices and food shortages threaten the nation's fragile stability, and the mud cookies, made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening, are one of very few options the poorest people have to stave off hunger.
If hell on Earth were a country, it would be Haiti.
You will be changed after you see it In Cite Soleil, a Port-au-Prince slum of 400,000, sometimes the dirt underfoot is the only food available. ‘‘It breaks your heart,’’
Cite Soleil is arguably the poorest place on Earth. Children live in tin huts or rat-infested boxes, and half die before age 5. Unemployment is almost 100 percent.
Yolen Jeunky, 45, collects dried mud cookies to sell in Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince on Nov. 29, 2007. Rising prices and food shortages threaten the nation's fragile stability, and the mud cookies are one of very few options the poorest people have to stave off hunger.
A woman prepare cookies made of dirt, water, salt and vegetable shortening on
Thursday Nov. 29 2007.
The hand of a woman is covered in mud as she makes mud cookies
It was lunchtime in one of Haiti's worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud.
With food prices rising, Haiti's poorest can't afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies.
Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country's central plateau.
Drying mud in the hot sun
The mud has long been prized by pregnant women and children here as an antacid and source of calcium. But in places like Cite Soleil, the oceanside slum where Charlene shares a two-room house with her baby, five siblings and two unemployed parents, cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular meal.
"When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day," Charlene said. Her baby, Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the slim 6 pounds 3 ounces he weighed at birth.
Mud cookies, made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening, are one of very few options the poorest people have to survive.
Though she likes their buttery, salty taste, Charlene said the cookies also give her stomach pains. "When I nurse, the baby sometimes seems colicky, too," she said.
Food prices around the world have spiked because of higher oil prices, needed for fertilizer, irrigation and transportation. Prices for basic ingredients such as corn and wheat are also up sharply, and the increasing global demand for biofuels is pressuring food markets as well.
Taking down mud cookies to be sold
The problem is particularly dire in the Caribbean, where island nations depend on imports and food prices are up 40 percent in places.
The global price hikes, together with floods and crop damage from the 2007 hurricane season, prompted the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency to declare states of emergency in Haiti and several other Caribbean countries. Caribbean leaders held an emergency summit in December to discuss cutting food taxes and creating large regional farms to reduce dependence on imports.
At the market in the La Saline slum, two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say.
Still, at about 5 cents apiece, the cookies are a bargain compared with food staples. About 80 percent of people in Haiti live on less than $2 a day, and a tiny elite controls the economy.
Merchants truck the dirt from the central town of Hinche to the La Saline market, a maze of vegetable and meat tables swarming with flies. Women buy the dirt, then process it into mud cookies in places such as Fort Dimanche, a nearby shanty town.
Carrying buckets of dirt and water up ladders to the roof of the former prison for which the slum is named, they strain out rocks and clumps on a sheet, and stir in shortening and salt. Then they pat the mixture into mud cookies and leave them to dry under the scorching sun.
The finished cookies are carried in buckets to markets or sold on the streets.
A reporter sampling a cookie found that it had a smooth consistency and sucked all the moisture out of the mouth as soon as it touched the tongue. For hours, an unpleasant taste of dirt lingered.
Assessments of the health effects are mixed. Dirt can contain deadly parasites or toxins, but can also strengthen the immunity of fetuses in the womb to certain diseases, said Gerald N. Callahan, an immunology professor at Colorado State University who has studied geophagy, the scientific name for dirt-eating.
UPDATE: JAN 2010
Jan 12 (Reuters) - A major earthquake struck the capital of impoverished Haiti on Tuesday, toppling many buildings and burying hundreds, possibly thousands, of people under the rubble, witnesses said.
The magnitude 7.0 quake, whose epicenter was inland and only 10 miles (16 km) from Port-au-Prince, sent panic-stricken people into the streets as clouds of dust and smoke from falling buildings rose into the sky.
As offices, hotels, houses and shops collapsed, people were screaming "Jesus, Jesus" and running in all directions. The gleaming white presidential palace lay in ruins, its domes fallen on top of flattened walls.
Bloodied and dazed survivors gathered in the open and corpses were pinned by debris. Numerous powerful aftershocks rattled Port-au-Prince into the night.
The United Nations said a large number of its personnel in Haiti were unaccounted for after a five-story building at the headquarters of the U.N. mission collapsed.
"The whole city is in darkness. You have thousands of people sitting in the streets with nowhere to go," said Rachmani Domersant, an operations manager with the Food for the Poor charity. "There are people running, crying, screaming."
In the hillside neighborhood of Petionville, Domersant said he saw no police or rescue vehicles.
"People are trying to dig victims out with flashlights," he said. "I think hundreds of casualties would be a serious understatement."
Witnesses said they saw homes and shanties built on hillsides come tumbling down as the earth shook.
"The car was bouncing off the ground," Domersant said.
U.N. officials said normal communications had been cut off and the only way to talk with people on the ground was via satellite phone. Roads were blocked by rubble.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has a history of destructive natural disasters. Some 9,000 U.N. police and troops are stationed there to maintain order.
The quake prompted a tsunami watch for parts of the Caribbean but this was later canceled.
U.S. PROMISES HELP
U.S. President Barack Obama said his "thoughts and prayers" were with the people of Haiti and pledged immediate aid.
The United States would provide military and civilian disaster assistance to the Caribbean country, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Hawaii.
The U.S. Coast Guard in Miami said it had mobilized cutters and aircraft to positions close to Haiti to give humanitarian assistance as needed.
Clinton's husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who is the U.N. special envoy for Haiti, also pledged assistance. The Inter-American Development Bank said it would provide $200,000 in immediate emergency aid.
The World Bank, which said its local offices were destroyed but that most staff were accounted for, plans to send a team to help Haiti assess damage and plan a recovery.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said the main U.N. building in Port-au-Prince had collapsed. "We don't know how many people were in the building," he told reporters.
Le Roy's deputy Edmond Mulet said 200 to 250 people work in the building during normal hours. Since the earthquake struck after 5 p.m. local time -- after working hours -- it was not clear how many people would have been inside.
There were more houses destroyed than standing in Delmas Road, a major thoroughfare in Port-au-Prince, another Food for the Poor employee said. The Hotel Montana, where many foreigners stay, was also damaged.
"Within a minute of the quake ... soil, dust and smoke rose up over the city, a blanket that completely covered the city and obscured it for about 12 minutes," Mike Godfrey, who works for USAID, told CNN.
Experts said the quake's epicenter was very shallow at a depth of only 6.2 miles (10 km), which was likely to have magnified the destruction.
Dale Grant, a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist in Golden, Colorado, told Reuters there had been no quakes this large in Haiti for more than 200 years.
"There were two major quakes there in 1751 and 1770 but, since then, there has not been a quake of this magnitude," Grant said.
CUBA ALSO RATTLED
Speaking to CNN from Port-au-Prince, Ian Rogers of the charity Save the Children said he could hear cries of anguish and mourning rising up from around the city in the darkness.
A group of 12 U.S. students from Lynn University in Florida were visiting Haiti with Food for the Poor and some were able to send text messages to say they were fine, said the charity's spokeswoman Kathy Skipper.
The powerful quake was felt in southeastern Cuba, about 160 miles (257 km) from the epicenter. Cuban authorities evacuated coastal residents because of the initial tsunami threat.
Sailors at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in eastern Cuba felt the quake but there was no damage to the base or the detention camp where the United States holds 198 foreign terrorism suspects, said Chief Petty Officer Bill Mesta.