JIMANI, Dominican Republic — It’s dusk on market day at the Haitian-Dominican border. Throngs of Haitians have cleared Dominican trucks of their wares, stuffing diapers, brooms and food-flavoring mixes into buses, and strapping the overflow to roofs for the return trip to Port-au-Prince.

But off the main drag here, a smuggling operation is underway.

Men and women empty a couple of trucks, tying boxes with colored string and setting them in piles on the ground. Purchasers stack them on wheelbarrows and rush them to nearby Lake Azuei, where wooden boats stand ready for the trip to Haiti.

The contraband is eggs. Demand is high in Haiti, where malnutrition is a real threat for many people. Haitians eat more than 30 million eggs a month, and most cross the border illegally from their only land neighbor, whose eggs can cost half the price.

Haiti essentially banned Dominican eggs in 2008. The move followed discovery of avian flu across the border, but many doubt that’s the main reason. Haiti faces a dilemma familiar to many countries: Keep prices low by allowing free trade, or restricting imports and encouraging domestic production, even though that is likely to drive up prices, at least in the short term.

Officials say its goal tightening the border should help create an internal market. Instead, dysfunction and lack of investment feed a vicious cycle that perpetuates Haiti’s status as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. The government has paid more attention to the border than to the other half of the strategy — boosting local production. But it hasn’t fully implemented either part, frustrating nearly everyone.

The border briefly re-opened to Dominican eggs after a devastating earthquake in 2010. But the next year, Haitian authorities cracked down with greater determination.  Four years later, they banned 23 more common items, including pasta, snacks and cement mix from crossing the land border, citing the inability of customs officers to properly inspect and levy duties. Those products continue to pass as contraband, helping fill the boats on Lake Azuei.

Employees of a Dominican egg company unload a truck in Jimani, Dominican Republic, before the eggs are shipped across the border to Haiti. Jimani is the site of a major twice-weekly market, where Haitians come to buy many everyday items.
Amy Bracken

While improving border controls might increase customs revenue, much of the public sees the effort as heavy-handed and arbitrary, especially when it’s not accompanied by strong efforts to develop the economy. The patchwork of half-measures makes life in Haiti even more precarious. 

Those bringing Dominican eggs into Haiti never know if they will make it back to Port-au-Prince with their cargo, or if it will be seized. Haitian producers brace for a glut of cheap eggs during the Dominican tourism industry’s off-season. Uncertainty makes banks reluctant to provide loans to new producers. 

Much of what is sold in Port-au-Prince comes from the twice-weekly market a couple of hours away in Jimani, where Haitians bargain heatedly before loading up and heading home.

Jocelyn Lefevre, who sells Haitian chickens and Dominican eggs in a Port-au-Prince open market, rails against the government for the way he is treated at the border.

“The police chase us, and the customs agents take our stuff while letting other merchandise go through!” he said. Besides, it’s expensive to travel to the border and to change money. But it’s still a better deal than buying Haitian eggs.

One problem, officials say, is the high cost of entering the poultry business in Haiti. To make a profit, you need a minimum of 10,000 hens, said Michel Chancy, a former Ministry of Agriculture official who now advises the government. Buying imported birds and cages, as most Haitian egg producers do, can cost $30 a bird, he said. The biggest expense after that is feed, whose ingredients generally come from the United States.

Haiti Broilers, a joint Haitian-Jamaican company producing chicken near Port-au-Prince, expanded into the egg market four years ago and is now the biggest supplier in Haiti, with 400,000 hens. The expansion created 200 more jobs.

Dominique Charles Jean, hatchery manager for Haiti Broilers, said the company financed its Haiti operations by itself, but the government helped with paperwork that reduced import duties on feed and equipment.

Damoclès Termeus, who heads the Ministry of Agriculture’s unit on poultry production, foresees many more jobs in a growing egg and poultry industry, plus jobs for people growing corn and other ingredients for feed. If the ministry prioritizes egg production and invests every year, Haiti can reach self-sufficiency in eggs in 15 to 25 years, he said.

In particular, Termeus and Chancy say, the government should provide technical assistance for producers, facilitate bulk purchases of feed for multiple producers, and provide incentives for banks to lend at low rates. But Chancy still thinks that securing the border is job one.

He knows it’s not easy. Last March, Chancy helped draft a plan to increase domestic egg production. The plan declared it “practically impossible to eliminate egg contraband at the border” due to the interdependence of the Haitian market and Dominican producers.

Haitian merchants prepare boxes of eggs from the Dominican Republic to be put on boats and shipped across Lake Azuei to Haiti.
Amy Bracken

But it’s worth working toward that goal, Chancy said, citing an increase in domestic production since 2011. “That interdiction is an opportunity for us to invest,” he said.

In the last six years, Haitian companies have gone from producing a million eggs a month to 7 million. That’s a lot of eggs, but it still means that Haitian producers are providing less than one per month for each of the country’s 11 million people.

Max Antoine, who heads the government commission on border management, said political instability — a recent history of disputed elections, deposed leaders and interim governments — has made it difficult to secure the border. There also are budget and morale problems. Smugglers have attacked agents, and customs posts have been burned.

Many merchants in Port-au-Prince hate their country’s reliance on imported food, but also hate the government’s remedy.

Jorel Hibart buys eggs from sellers like Lefevre and fries them to sell in breakfast plates on a Port-au-Prince street. He said Haitian eggs would cost more, and he can’t afford it.

Hibart wants the government to focus on creating jobs and developing the economy. He doesn’t like depending on the Dominican Republic, which Haiti ruled long ago. But the idea that the government would cut his supply of eggs agitates him. If they do that, he cried, “We’ll all die in this country!”

“All of this stuff is Dominican,” he said, pointing angrily around his cluttered cooking table.

Then he paused to serve his next customer a heaping plate of fried Dominican egg with Dominican spaghetti and Dominican tomato sauce — a classic Haitian breakfast.

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is supporting the next generation of global journalists. Michel Joseph contributed to the report.