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Poor Haitians Resort to Eating Dirt

By JONATHAN M. KATZ - Jan 29, 2008

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — 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.

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, named Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the slim 6 pounds 3 ounces he weighed at birth.

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.

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 to 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 tables of vegetables and meat 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.

Haitian doctors say depending on the cookies for sustenance risks malnutrition.

"Trust me, if I see someone eating those cookies, I will discourage it," said Dr. Gabriel Thimothee, executive director of Haiti's health ministry.

Marie Noel, 40, sells the cookies in a market to provide for her seven children. Her family also eats them.

"I'm hoping one day I'll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these," she said. "I know it's not good for me."

Congregational Reading: God of Justice for the Poor
Leader: Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees
People: Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied

Leader: Woe to those who deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
People: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy

Leader: What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?
People: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Based on Isaiah 10:1-3 and Matthew 5:3,6,7

Iraq’s 100-Year Mortgage

By Linda J. Bilmes

Reprinted from Foreign Policy Magazine, March/April 2008

The price tag for caring for the Americans who fight this war could exceed what it costs to wage it.

March 19 marks the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The American death toll—nearly 4,000 soldiers in Iraq and almost 500 in Afghanistan—is well known. Much less attention has been paid to the enormous number of troops who have survived and returned home with serious injuries. Here, the numbers are truly staggering. More than 70,000 have been wounded in combat, injured in accidents, or airlifted out of the region for emergency medical care. More than a third of the 750,000 troops discharged from the military so far have required treatment at medical facilities, including at least 100,000 with mental health conditions and 52,000 with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to a recent U.S. Army estimate, as many as 20 percent of returning soldiers have suffered mild brain injuries, such as concussions. More than 20,000 troops have survived amputations, severe burns, or head, spinal, and other serious injuries.

These numbers are largely due to the extraordinary advances in battlefield medicine in recent years. Far more soldiers are surviving even grievous injuries than in previous conflicts. The ratio of wounded in combat to killed in Iraq is 7 to 1; in Vietnam, it was 2.6 to 1, and in World War II, 2 to 1. If all injuries are included, such as those from road accidents or debilitating illnesses, Iraq has produced 15 wounded for every single fatality. This higher survival rate is, of course, welcome news, but it leaves the United States with a legacy of providing medical care and paying disability benefits to an enormous number of veterans and their dependents for many decades to come. During the past six years, more than 1.6 million troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even in the most optimistic scenario, assuming that the majority of U.S. troops are withdrawn by the end of 2009, the cost of providing for Iraq War veterans will match what we have spent waging the war: approximately $500 billion. If U.S. forces remain deployed at a higher level, the cost of caring for veterans will eventually exceed $700 billion.

When we think about the costs of war, we tend to focus on the here and now. But in what is already the second-most expensive conflict in U.S. history, after World War II, the costs of Iraq will persist long after the last shot is fired. Benefits were still being paid to World War I veterans until January 2007, when the last veteran receiving compensation died, nearly 90 years after the war ended. The United States pays more than $12 billion each year in disability benefits to Vietnam veterans, a figure that continues to climb, 35 years after the U.S. pullout. If these past wars are any guide, Americans will undoubtedly be paying for Iraq for at least the next 50 years.

The purpose of U.S. policy toward war veterans is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.” To do this, the government provides two main benefits: medical care and financial compensation to those who have disabilities incurred or aggravated during active military service. The consequence is that the United States faces a daunting financial burden, as well as a steep logistical challenge, in providing medical care and disability benefits to all who need or are entitled to them.

Part of the challenge is that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical system simply lacks the capacity to cope with the demand of returning troops. The government expects 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to seek treatment this year alone. If the current conflict follows the pattern of the first Gulf War in 1991, about 800,000 returning veterans will eventually require medical care—more than a few for the rest of their lives. Moreover, the government is ill-equipped to handle the near epidemic of mental health cases resulting from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Even using conservative estimates, the long-term cost of providing medical care alone to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans over their lifetimes could approach $285 billion, depending on how long the soldiers are deployed.

After the 1991 Gulf War, some 44 percent of its veterans applied for disability benefits; today, nearly 17 years later, the United States pays more than $4 billion each year in disability compensation to 169,000 veterans from the 1991 Gulf War. We have already paid five times as much in disability pay for that conflict as we did to fight it. Even under the conservative assumption that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan apply for disability benefits at the same rate as those from the first Gulf War, the cost could reach $390 billion during their lifetimes.

Other parts of the government will also pay a long-term price for the war. Veterans who can no longer hold down a job, due to physical or mental injuries, are likely to qualify for Social Security disability compensation (adding another $22 to $38 billion to the bill). For others, the injuries they have suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually swell the rolls of Medicare, as the long-term effects of injuries and chronic illnesses appear.

Staggering though they are, these costs only represent the impact of the war on the U.S. federal budget. The many social and economic costs that the government does not pay, such as the loss to the economy of so many young, productive Americans and the costs paid by state and local governments, communities, and private medical providers, could add another $415 billion to the total cost to the economy.

Americans have so far focused only on the ballooning short-term price of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we have not yet counted the cost of caring for veterans, replenishing military equipment, and restoring the armed forces to their pre-war strength. This war will prove one of the costliest in U.S. history—one whose bill we pass to the generations that follow.

Linda J. Bilmes, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, is coauthor, with Joseph E. Stiglitz, of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008).