Investing in Haiti’s Rural Community
By Saulo Araujo
Haitian peasant movements and organizations provide practical demonstrations of sustainable agricultural methods and practices and act as an example of the way out of poverty. One of these groups, the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) has been working in Haiti’s Central Plateau for nearly 40 years. A partner of Grassroots International, the MPP is today one of Haiti’s largest and most successful peasant movements with over 60,000 members, which includes 20,000 women and 10,000 youth.
The challenges facing the MPP are significant. Haiti continues to have one of the highest rates of soil erosion and deforestation in the world—less than two percent of the country’s natural forest-cover remains. Only 20 percent of Haiti’s 27,560 sq. km are arable, and as many as 37,000 acres of arable land are lost annually due to erosion. Further exacerbating the problem is the loss of 15 to 20 million trees per year, resulting in the annual loss of 36 million tons of topsoil. Not only does this dramatically diminish the agricultural yield per acre of land, but it also exacerbates the destructiveness of hurricanes and other severe storms, which cause deadly mudslides and flooding in areas devoid of vegetation.
Export-driven trade agreements imposed on Haiti make it the most “open” economy in the world, and imported food aid further undermines local production. Rural Haitians are especially hard hit, even though they have the potential to meet their own food needs and provide for urban residents. One result has been that more than two million rural Haitians migrated to Port-au-Prince over a period of less than thirty years. The city was in no way ready to handle the swelling numbers, and most ended up in impoverished dangerous slums and poorly constructed housing. Many of the more than 300,000 who were killed by the January 2010 earthquake could have been saved with a decentralized rural development strategy rooted in food sovereignty. Despite the emergency situation and many setbacks to measurable progress, Haitian peasant organizations are still moving forward with their work.
For the MPP and other peasant-led organizations, moving forward takes place particularly in the rural areas of the country, including the Central Plateau. This particularly arid area was one of the most deforested areas in the country. While some international organizations, governments, and corporations have eyed the deforested land to make room for jatropha plants for agrofuel production, Haitian groups like the MPP recognize that the land should be used to grow healthy food to feed their communities and sustain their livelihoods.
Through the MPP’s Agroecological Program they have developed a variety of comprehensive strategies for soil conservation and improvement, reforestation, experimentation with nitrogen fixing cover crops and trees like velvet beans and leucaena trees, construction of soil bunds and stone terraces to prevent soil erosion, and development of man-made lakes to catch rain water during the rainy season and to serve as a place for fish stocking.
Their work includes the creation and maintenance of tree nurseries and tree farms to supply wood and replenish trees once they are harvested; the production and education on the use of organic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer (compost) and drip irrigation models; diversification of production through the introduction of new timber and fruit varieties, the propagation of leguminous varieties and the increased use of water conservation strategies such as cisterns. The MPP agronomists have studied which trees are native to Haiti and make every effort possible to recreate the natural landscape.
As peasants are organized to join these projects, they also participate in popular education programs that explore structural issues such as US foreign policy in Haiti, economic globalization, and other important political, economic and social realities. It is in large part because of this coupling of community organizing and popular education efforts with “seeds and tools” development that the MPP has been so successful.
Today their labor has come to fruition. The MPP has created environmentally friendly barriers to prevent mudslides—consisting of stone walls, straw barriers and hillside terraces where nitrogen-fixing plants are grown. Through this process over the years they have reversed soil erosion and recaptured over 10,000 acres of arable land. More rural families are cultivating that land, as the MPP provides technical assistance and access to materials. Because of this they have been able to implement demonstration units like satellite tree nurseries in various communities throughout the Central Plateau to promote widespread reforestation efforts. Women have benefited from these program as well through income generation projects based on the transformation of agricultural produce, cooperatives, and the production and marketing of medicinal plants for use in the MPP’s clinic.
In fact, reforestation efforts continue to gain ground. The MPP grows more than 100,000 fruit and forest trees in their training center. Their satellite nurseries in cooperatives grow 200,000 more. Their capacity is well over a million per year. Since the beginning of their reforestation work they have grown and planted over 20 million fruit and forest trees.
Additional the MPP has produced these ongoing results:
- Distributed more than 2000 creole pigs to peasant families.
- Created hundreds of successful cooperative community-based economic development initiatives including grain storage, brick manufacturing, cooperative farms, arts and crafts cooperatives, food processing, community mills, and stores.
- Launched literacy programs and trained more than 500 literacy monitors.
- Trained hundreds of groups in sustainable agriculture, reforestation, and soil conservation.
- Trained over 1000 grassroots organizers to work with these groups.
- Educated over 100 young members who now serve as community resources in agronomy, irrigation, arts and crafts, accounting, information technology, etc.
- Developed and implemented a popular education model which encourages peasants to perceive themselves as social, political and economic actors for social change.
- Established a savings and loan cooperative, SERE POU CHOFE, in many localities, the first in 1976, with over 150 SPC’s throughout Haiti today.
Successfully led countless grassroots campaigns to defend the rights of peasants in solidarity with other national and international partners, such as a successful women-led campaign against local market taxes that helped keep funds in the pockets of women merchants.
The Papaye region of the Central Plateau is now rich with various fruit and forest cover, young forests, and farms—a humble paradise at the crossroads of hardship. Forty years ago, it was a wasteland. One MPP agronomist described this work as a “marriage” between food production and soil conservation. The MPP has spearheaded a national peasant coalition in order to reproduce their results elsewhere in Haiti. They know through experience that it works. Now they want to bring locally driven agroecology to be the cornerstone of the rebuilding process.