The pigs are returning.

Far from the eggshell white palace of President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier, far from U.S. attempts to soften his autocratic rule, and far from the oysters jetted in fresh from France at Chez Gerard, the pigs' arrival marks an important chapter in the sad history of the Haitian countryside.

A two-year absence of pigs, after the entire population was slaughtered in 1983 because of African swine fever, has devastated the peasant economy here. The Creole pig for years had been the most common way to acquire money and, for the island's poorest, often the only way. It was a savings account, loan collateral and meat locker, eating garbage and grubbing about the village until the time came when its owner needed food or cash.

Perhaps the most poignant measure of what its disappearance meant, foreign and Haitian officials note, is that school enrollment has dropped by between 30 percent and 50 percent in some rural areas because families have been without pigs to sell to pay for tuition and school uniforms.

Some officials blamed the pig slaughter for an increase in the number of Haitian boat people trying to sneak into the United States. Voodoo priests have even complained because one of the folk religion's main rites requires sacrificing a pig.

"The pig problem is the biggest catastrophe to befall Haitian peasants in 50 years," said a longtime foreign observer here. Haitian economists calculated that the loss of pigs did half a billion dollars' worth of damage as it reverberated through the peasant economy.

The slaughter of approximately 400,000 Haitian pigs was carried out in a $23 million campaign over more than a year. It was necessary, Haitian and foreign aid officials said, because the Haitian herd was infected with African swine fever.

The disease, which affects only pigs, spread here from the neighboring Dominican Republic. It could have spread to U.S. and other hemispheric farms via a tourist or Haitian immigrant carrying in pork, the officials explained.

Haiti was declared free of the disease last fall, although officials acknowledged that a handful of wild pigs probably escaped the slaughter.

The program to repopulate the island got under way earlier this year. The Organization of American States' Inter-American Agricultural Cooperation Institute, with $8.5 million in U.S. aid, has imported 3,000 Midwestern pigs and begun putting them in centers to reproduce.

Mechell Jacob, who directs the institute's effort here, said peasants have greeted the pigs' arrival in some centers around the country with singing and dancing. Many farmers have visited reproduction centers to admire the fat new pigs the way American youths visit used car lots, officials said.

Jacob said almost half of the 300 centers have received a batch of pigs and that by the end of the year farmers will be getting the next generation of offspring. The Midwestern pigs have been reproducing rapidly despite Haiti's unfavorable climate, because of careful sanitation and feeding, he added.

Herbert Docteur, Haiti's secretary of state for agriculture, natural resources and rural development, said the government plans to encourage peasants to adopt these better raising methods when the new pigs move into back-country farms.

The method includes concrete or wooden pigpens and scientifically formulated feed, he said. This would be a far cry from peasant traditions of letting the animals run almost wild and grub for food or eat garbage.

"We want the peasant to move from the artisan stage to a new stage," he said in an interview.

Some foreigners and Haitians familiar with the repopulation effort have suggested that peasants' urgent economic needs might be met more rapidly by simple importation and distribution of hardy Creole pigs from a nearby, disease-free island. Breeding U.S. pigs and the attempt to improve pork husbandry have had the effect of prolonging a grave crisis in the countryside, they said.

Attempts to have peasants build concrete or wooden structures for their pigs, for example, often amount to encouraging peasants to house their pigs better than they house their own families. In addition, the cost of scientifically prepared pig feed is beyond the reach of many Haitian peasants, most of whom, according to the World Bank, are among the 75 percent of the population who earn less than $130 a year.

"They will make sacrifices," predicted Fenelus Filisnel, who manages a new reproduction pigpen in a church-run model farm at Leogane, west of Port-au-Prince.

With this in mind, some Haitain peasants have taken to calling the new pigs "four-legged princes" and "white pigs." Maurice Theodore, a 31-year-old peasant in the village of Flon, said he would rather get one of the old-style "black" pigs like he used to raise.

"They ate everything you could think of," he said.