Hope for Haiti?
An profile of Haiti's problems and those who are trying to help
By Camilla Mortensen
The January earthquake in Haiti brought a rush of media and aid, but Haitians and longtime advocates will tell you that the devastated nation is no stranger to adversity. “There is no easy solution to Haiti,” says Michael Schapiro, a Peace Corps volunteer in Haiti from 2001-2003 and the current executive director of the Eugene, Ore.-based Haitian Sustainable Development Foundation (HSDF). “There’s been three centuries of hardships,” he says.
The country’s agricultural and environmental problems can’t be solved by small projects set up by outsiders; Schapiro knows this because he’s one of those who has tried. Haitian agronomist and attorney Jean André Victor has tried too. Change has to come from within. The only way to help Haiti’s agriculture is to help Haiti help itself.
“Tet ansanm” (“heads together”)
“We have a lot of projects,” says Victor. “The problem is a project, well done or not well done, has a short duration and concerns few people. And then when the project finishes, you can’t see the impact. The main problem is you can’t solve the degradation of the environment with projects.”
Victor traveled to the U.S., arriving shortly after the January 12, 2010 earthquake that destroyed his house and killed his mother, to study English at the University of Oregon’s American English Institute. He came through the help of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), which is helping him with his plan to help his country feed itself and preserve its environment.
Schapiro says in some ways Haiti’s problems can be summed up in terms of two conflicting ideas: Partly due to their long and painful postcolonial history, Haitians suffer from a lack of “tet ansanm” (“heads together”), a lack willingness to work together to solve problems. Simultaneously the proverb “men anpil, chay pa lou,” (“many hands make the load lighter,”) highlights the Haitian people’s abilities to work together and help each other out.
During his time in Haiti with the Peace Corps, Schapiro was posted to Ferrier, in the northeast corner of Haiti, bordering the Dominican Republic—the country that shares the island of Hispaniola. Ferrier is very, very poor, Schapiro says, and depends on the Dominican Republic for 60 percent of its food. Ninety percent of the farms relied upon rain, not irrigation for their water when he was there, he says. “The government didn’t invest in irrigation systems,” he says. And as for the farmers themselves, “How can you run irrigation when you don’t have farmers working together?” Schapiro says farmers hesitate to join with groups on projects because they fear losing money and crops to political upheavals.
“You put a lot of time and energy and work, only for it to be destroyed,” Schapiro says of the difficulty of getting projects going in Haiti. He returns to Haiti every year to check up on work supported by the HSDF.
Schapiro says he worked in Ferrier with motivated individuals to put in a permaculture plot. Community members from Eugene came to Haiti to help dig a reservoir. To this day the plot still exists with self-sustaining almond trees in a part of the country that’s been 99 percent deforested. But Schapiro says the high demand for trees to use as charcoal, Haiti’s primary energy source, led to some of the trees being cut. The plot works best when just left alone he says.
To understand the difficulties of agriculture in Haiti, Schapiro says, one needs to understand its history. Within 50 years of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the island’s native peoples had largely disappeared and the Europeans colonizers began importing African slaves and exploiting the land through sugar plantations and logging. Haiti was almost entirely logged by the mid 1800s. The ongoing demand for charcoal keeps the land barren of trees.
In 1804, the Haitian slaves successfully revolted, though the Napoleonic land-use system remains as part of the colonial legacy, and complicates improving the agricultural system, Schapiro explains. Former slaves were parceled out pieces of land, then those pieces were left to each of their children, whose pieces were further divided and left to their children and so on, leading to an economy made of small land owners practicing subsistence farming on tiny plots. Haiti is said to be so denuded of vegetation, thanks to logging and over-farming, that the border with the more fertile Dominican Republic can be seen from the air, green on one side and barren land on the other.
Since the revolution, Haiti has been plagued with political strife, and “aid” from outside governments has done more harm than good.
Rice gone wrong
One agricultural example of aid gone awry is the rice market. In the early 1980s, Haiti imported only 19 percent of its food. At the time, Haitian farmers were growing and selling their own brown rice as well as other staples like manioc, and Jean André Victor began to work on a project to export rice to other Caribbean countries.
But after the 1986 departure of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the country was pressured by the U.S. to remove the tariffs that had protected the Haitian rice market and open it up to American imports. Victor says, “We received a lot of cheap rice from the United States and the Haitian market cannot compete with the cheap rice.”
Now more than 50 percent of Haitian food and over 80 percent of its rice is imported. The more nutritious Haitian rice became more expensive than the white rice coming in from the U.S. Haiti lost not only its ability to feed itself, but a key portion of its economy.
Victor says this was a catalyst in his realization that projects are not enough, and changes need to be made in Haiti at a policy level, “In the example of rice production,” he says, “you can have results for 20 years of working with technical solutions and one day of political decisions is sufficient to destroy all you were doing.”
Ironically, one of the people behind the destruction of Haiti’s rice market is now charged with helping post-earthquake Haiti. In March 2010, former President Bill Clinton, now a special envoy to Haiti, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the decision his administration made to force Haiti to open up its rice market, “may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake.” He told the committee, “I had to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.”
These days Schapiro says the more nutritious brown rice is still available, but it’s more expensive and requires more preparation — such as removing rocks — than the American rice. It’s another example, he says, of how Haitians have been let down through politics and a lack of government support.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 58 percent of the population is undernourished and 75 percent of the population live in rural zones and depend on the agriculture that was massively disrupted by the earthquake that killed 230,000 people.
Seeds of evil?
One effort to aid Haitian farmers has exploded into controversy. Chemical and seed giant Monsanto donated hybrid seeds of field corn, cabbage, carrot, eggplant, melon, onion, tomato, spinach and watermelon to be distributed by the United States Agency for International Development The donation was done through the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture.
But the Haitian people don’t always trust their government, and the distrust for the donation was compounded by the fact the seeds are hybrids, which are not commonly grown in Haiti, and by the announcement that the seeds would be treated with fungicide.
Haitian peasant groups voiced concerns the seed donation would include genetically modified seeds and that farmers would be obligated to keep planting Monsanto’s seeds. Monsanto denies these allegations. The company also on its website, in response to concerns that farmers will be pressured to use herbicides and chemical fertilizers, says, “A seed is a seed. And technically, it can be planted without any additional inputs. Fertilizer and herbicides increase the output of the crop.”
Farmers in Haiti have threatened to burn the donated fungicide-treated seed.
Schapiro says most farmers in Haiti grow their crops organically, not because they intend to, but because the poverty-stricken farmers cannot afford pesticides and fertilizers.
It’s not surprising Haitian farmers distrust a U.S.-based multinational corporation. Prior to the 1980s, Haitian farmers relied on Creole pigs for meat. The pigs were known as “the savings bank of the Haitian peasant.” A cross of imported pigs with native wild boars, they had been bred over centuries to thrive in the inhospitable Haitian environment, eating waste products and producing meat with little feeding required by the farmers.
The pigs were almost completely eradicated under the Reagan administration after an epidemic of lethal African Swine Fever broke out on the island. American authorities feared the disease could spread to the U.S. and pressured the Duvalier dictatorship to wipe out the pigs, offering to replace the pigs with imported American pigs. The pigs belonging to 800,000 Haitian families were killed, and unfortunately the replacement pigs required vaccinations, clean water, roofed pens and more food than the Haitians could provide, leading them to be nicknamed le prince aux quatre pieds (the four-legged princes).
Haitians lost money, a key protein source and a source of education for their children, since the sale of the pigs by farming families had traditionally been used to pay for school fees.
“Everybody tries to help according his perception of the Haitian reality,” says Victor, “and then you have a nightmare. Nothing can work in such a situation.”
How to help?
So how do you help the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, if political upheavals overwhelm small projects, and large-scale aid has been known to backfire?
Victor says, “We have to mobilize the whole population. Not projects. The government must adopt new ways and policies in the fields of agriculture, energy and even population. In Haiti we have no policies. You have projects and a lot of opinion coming from officials, technicians, professionals and the international community, but no policies.”
Schapiro says that HSDF asks Haitian communities to come up with their own long-term projects, giving them technical support and education, but specifically avoiding creating a dependence on foreign aid.
He says the key to helping Haiti is not stepping in and trying to do things for the people, but by placing the tools into their hands and helping them to be accountable to one another, to develop that idea of “tet ansanm.” The HSDF has worked to develop projects the Haitian people themselves conceptualize from biodiesel production to tree planting, to a micro-credit program, to a community center and library.
Schapiro says one focus of HSDF has been on education. “A lot of Haitian peasants don’t have access to education. And the ones that get educated are dealing with the land system and entrenched methods,” he says. But despite it all, “I feel like the youth is motivated. If they had access to a real education they would benefit.” He adds, “Haiti needs some investment in its people.”
This ties in with Victor’s plan for helping his country. “You can have good resources, good laws and enough budget, but this is not sufficient to solve the problem,” he says. “You can’t solve the problem if peasants and farmers are not involved in the solution.”
Victor says to help Haiti, there needs to be changes from within from mobilizing the population, to changing politics and policies. “It is interesting to underline also that many people living outside Haiti think that the solution to the Haitian problem is occupation by another country,” he says. “Within the Haitian people we can find the human resources. We can find people with the ability to fight against poverty.”
For more on the Haitian Sustainable Development Foundation and its work, visit www.sustainablehaiti.org. For more on the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide and the work of Jean André Victor and other attorneys in developing countries, go to www.elaw.org.
Camilla Mortensen is the staff journalist at the Eugene Weekly.