Farming Uphill in Haiti
by James L. Gulley
Before the January 12, 2010, earthquake, the people of Haiti had not had a major seismic event for decades--though they had endured countless social and political upheavals, along with natural catastrophes, throughout their history. Since the 2010 earthquake, the Haitians have experienced a nearly unimaginable series of "aftershocks"--and not only from the earthquake (which was followed by 55 seismic aftershocks and counting).
In addition to recurring quakes that continue to shake the country, other natural disasters have not spared Haiti. Torrential storms destroyed thousands of tent homes in July and September 2010. October brought an unprecedented cholera epidemic; and, in November, Hurricane Tomas struck. Political aftershocks also rocked Haiti--including riots protesting an attempt to rig the presidential election in December; the unexpected return, in January 2011, of a deposed dictator, Jean Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier; and the return in March of a democratically elected, but forcibly removed, sitting president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. So Haitians and visitors alike have wondered aloud: "What bizarre events might unfold next?" Haiti, it seems, has drama by the moment.
More than a year after the earthquake, most of the rubble still remains. Just over 53,000 transitional (not permanent) shelters have been completed for the 1.5 million persons displaced. Few homes and businesses have been rebuilt. And, although numbers in the tent camps have declined to about 680,000 residents, the reduction has been largely for the wrong reasons: few job opportunities, fear of cholera, inadequate services, and even a surge in sexual violence. A tortuously drawn-out election process began in mid-2010, diverting national attention from the recovery process. In the weeks before the election run-off, Haitians seemed to be holding their collective breath. An unpredictable electoral cycle had to be completed before a fully functioning government could be put into place.
An Indomitable People
Yet, throughout Haiti's recent history of severe physical and political aftershocks, the 65 percent of the population that works in the agricultural sector has continued, as best it could, to feed the poorest population in the Western Hemisphere. Many rural families had to absorb and assist 600,000 displaced people fleeing the earthquake zone. This put pressure on food supplies (which were more plentiful than usual, thanks to a bumper harvest in 2009). Still, some farmers were forced to use seed for food instead of saving it for planting, and others had to sell livestock or use other meager savings. An earlier effort by the Haitian government had boosted farm output in the previous three years, but farm families still have limited access to the essential resources they need to be more productive. They lack adequate land and credit, readily available sources of seed and fertilizer, technical assistance, storage facilities, and, most critically, a network of roads to transport crops beyond local markets. Without the roads, subsistence farming is their only option. For the better part of two centuries, since Haiti gained independence from France in 1804, the indescribably resilient people of rural Haiti have been forced to farm uphill, both literally and figuratively.
The Church's Response
At times during the past 50 years, the Methodist Church in Haiti (L'Eglise Methodiste d'Haiti, or EMH) has been an innovator in working with rural populations. Besides providing a church network of 102 private schools, EMH has brought literacy, health care, microcredit resources, and improved farming methods and opportunities to remote parts of Haiti. But, over time, the execution of some of these programs and projects declined. Recently, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, the EMH leadership decided to redevelop its agricultural program as a way to demonstrate the church's love and concern for earthquake-stricken farm families. So, in October 2010, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) partnered with the Methodist Relief and Development Fund (MRDF) of Great Britain to fund an emergency agricultural assistance project for the farmers and farm families most affected by the earthquake. The sum of $292,000 was set aside for purchasing such farm necessities as seeds, fertilizer, poultry, and goats.
The emergency assistance plan--Projet d'Assistance Urgente d'Agricole (PAUA)--was initiated in early 2011 with the hiring of a project director (ingenieur agronome) and agricultural technicians (techniciens agricole). Collins Zamor, the project director, leads a team of six technicians. Beginning in February, the technical team received basic training in goals and methods, while developing an initial survey instrument to collect data. Then they climbed into public transport or onto motorcycles and fanned out over six zones to reach the rural population--many of whom are still living under tents and tarps.
The agricultural project will assist 1,600 farm families, providing them with seeds and fertilizer for two staple crops grown in association--maize and beans--along with tomato and cabbage seed and small livestock--either poultry or goats--to increase agricultural production and family incomes. Through community and farm visits, the technicians provide training in leadership development and in the most effective farming practices. The project's further aims are to strengthen relationships among community members and to build relationships between the Methodist Church and farm producers through their community groups (organizations de base).
Each agricultural technician is responsible for visiting 10 to 15 rural communities in post-earthquake Haiti where the Methodist Church has a presence, such as a church, school, clinic, or other church-related site. The technicians meet with local church leaders and circuit superintendents, along with leaders of locally based organizations--such as farmer groups and local groups organized for road repair, environmental clean-up, or other community projects. They also meet with the local community official who serves as arbiter of competing interests. In those meetings, the technicians share the news of the church's renewed outreach in agricultural development.
Typically, leaders and members of local groups receive the technicians with warm enthusiasm, but sometimes they are met with a measure of skepticism, being asked: "Why is this only a six-month project? What will happen after that? Why can only 20 community members be selected?" And, of course, the process begins with the technicians hearing: "What we really need here is water--irrigation," or "We would like a pump," or "How about some fishing equipment?" The technicians field a multitude of such questions, drawing on their training and past experience to help PAUA implement the program effectively in 80 communities. Given the pressure of unusually early rains, the project focuses on limited crops. Participants in one region had already begun to plant, so they all decided to opt for livestock rather than crops.
Passing on the Gift
The technicians are both catalysts and connections on the ground, serving to mobilize local leaders and deliver the goods. As they do so, they are the ones who convey the program's philosophy of caring and sharing through the practice of "passing-on-the-gift," a strategy adopted from Heifer International. It is made clear to the program's initiators and participants that the church's small don-prets (gift-loans) are tokens of love and care for communities shaken, but not broken, by the earthquake and the social-political aftershocks that followed. Don-prets are the leaven in the loaf of caring relationships. They are the church reaching out to the rural poor, who are less visible than the urban poor. Don-prets become signs of solidarity with those who posted signs along the highways, saying: "Help us [in] Rebuilding.... We lost everything."
Project PAUA represents one response of a church that was itself shaken and, in some places, literally crushed--with members killed, but with a spirit undiminished. The Methodist Church in Haiti is mobilizing itself to share resources with the poor in rural areas. There, the don-prets become gospel messages, bringing people together around a principle of multiplying the gifts and enabling recipients to carry out their own acts of sharing and caring.
These simple acts of sharing are only a beginning that will demand commitment and creativity by the Methodist Church. "Not everyone [in the community] can receive a don-pret, but everyone can benefit from the training," a community member commented. Will those who initially receive feel blessed in ways that generate a glad and generous heart for sharing with others? Technicians and leaders will answer this question as they systematically rebuild a development program that previously lost focus.
One day in February, as we set out for remote regions to join some of our technicians in preparatory meetings, we found ourselves on roads barely clinging to the sides of mountains. After just a little rain, those roads proved impassable even for vehicles with four-wheel drive. So we were forced to abandon our visits that day, leaving each individual technician to go later by motorbike.
Returning, we passed by a local office of the ministry of agriculture. I suggested we stop in to see what materials on productive farming practices the office might have available for farmers. My Haitian colleagues, conditioned by low expectations of government, were unenthusiastic; but we did go in and met a government official. He had no printed materials available and gave no indication that he would ever have any. Unfortunately, that experience could only reinforce the Haitians' attitude that their government does not help its people. The alternative has often been to look outside Haiti for solutions. But genuine solutions for a new Haiti must come from within, with outside support. One of our challenges is to convince our colleagues to raise their expectations of their own government and of themselves and the people in their rural communities.
As the Methodist Church in Haiti moves beyond "emergency agricultural assistance" that arises from compassion, its leadership must find ways the church can help transform rural Haiti, moving it from a state of perpetual dependency. Haitian communities, themselves, must restore the fertility of the land through more sustainable forms of agriculture. This cannot happen unless compassionate acts of charity are accompanied by social and political transformation.
Systematic change means:
These are changes that individual farmers cannot make alone. These are changes required of a renewed Haitian government and a strengthened civil society of which the Methodist Church in Haiti must be a part.
The Rev. James L. Gulley is an agricultural consultant for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. In January 2010, he was visiting Haiti with a small delegation representing UMCOR and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) when the earthquake struck. Gulley was trapped with his colleagues underneath the rubble of the Hotel Montana for more than two days. He survived the ordeal and returned to work the following month, assisting vulnerable communities in the Haitian countryside.
Date posted: Jun 08, 2011