CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti — While millions of Haitians go hungry, containers full of food are stacking up in the nation's ports because of government red tape — leaving tons of beans, rice and other staples to rot or be devoured by vermin.
A government attempt to clean up a corrupt port system that has helped make Haiti a major conduit for Colombian cocaine has added new layers of bureaucracy — and led to backlogs so severe they are being felt 600 miles away in Miami, where cargo shipments to Haiti have ground almost to a standstill.
The problems are depriving desperate people of donated food. Some are so poor they are forced to eat cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable oil to satisfy their hunger.
An Associated Press investigation found the situation is most severe in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city. One recent afternoon, garbage men shoveled a pile of rotting pinto beans that had turned gray and crumbled to dust as cockroaches and beetles scurried about.
The container with 40,000 pounds of beans had been in port since November.
"So many times, by the time (the food) gets out of customs it's expired and we're forced to burn it," said Susie Scott Krabacher, whose Colorado-based Mercy and Sharing Foundation has worked in Haiti for 14 years. "The food is there. It is available. It just can't get to the people."
Haiti imports about 75 percent of its food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The U.N. calculated that almost half the population was undernourished in 2002.
The U.N. World Food Program and large-scale U.S. rice growers say they have been able to get their food into Haiti by hiring local agents to handle bureaucratic procedures. But smaller charities, merchants and private citizens have often been forced by the delays to throw away containers of food or pay exorbitant fees.