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Haiti: The Clock is set to Zero

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of the Peasant Movement of Papay, one of many grassroots organizations working for a just reconstruction of Haiti. Photo: Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste is the Executive Director of the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP by its Creole acronym) and the spokesperson for the National Peasant Movement of the Congress of Papay (MPNKP). He gave this interview last month in MPP’s training center in the rambling, fertile fields and gardens in the Central Plateau. There, peasants come to practice environmental farming and to learn about food sovereignty, a program of local production for local consumption that small farmer movements are advocating in Haiti and throughout the world. Food sovereignty requires the protection of domestic markets through tariffs on food imports, as well as land reform, native seeds, and technical and environmental support. It also requires the democratic input of citizens into the formation of trade and development policies.

We have to take advantage of this catastrophe and say, “The clock is set at zero.” We have to build another Haiti that doesn’t have anything to do with the Haiti we had before. A Haiti that is sovereign politically and that has food sovereignty. It has to begin by building agriculture.

We peasants have been victims for more than 200 years. The slaves who struggled to get their independence did so in part to get land from the colonialists. But from the moment of independence, the Haitian army generals had the idea that the slaves would remain slaves, working their land instead of the colonists’ land. That led to a division between rich and poor, between people of the city and people of the country. That gave us two countries inside one small country, those of the republic of Port-au-Prince and the republic of ‘those outside.’ ‘Those outside’ are 80% of the population.

We even had two birth certificates: one for peasants and one for people from town. In President Aristide’s first term, we demanded that there be just one.

Almost all services of the state were concentrated in Port-au-Prince. If you needed a passport, if you needed an identity card, if you needed to send your child to college… the Republic of Port-au-Prince was where you went. It was in there, too, that everyone came to find work, because they couldn’t stay ‘outside’, because ‘outside’ has nothing. So it became a city of three million people, one big slum with people building everywhere in chaos, with houses in ravines, with no drainage. We saw the results on January 12; other countries have had much worse earthquakes but only lose a few people. We lost five youth from MPP in the catastrophe because they were at a university in Port-au-Prince. They lost their lives because they wanted an education.

Little by little, the state has abandoned the countryside, leaving the peasants as a marginalized class whom they just use when they need votes in an election.

And now we have Bill Clinton’s reconstruction plan, which is the model of Haiti dominated by the international community. The aid they are giving is not the aid we want. The plan is for Haiti to become a market for international export and for labor in the free trade zones. They speak of comparative advantage, which means that Haiti is a manual labor force. We are supposed to go work in the sweatshops while they send us food aid. This project is opposed to the peasants’ project.

It’s clear that you can’t develop a country and build another Haiti where 80% of the people are excluded. And so one of our objectives in MPP has been to make the countryside become a paradise, where people want to go live instead of having to go to Port-au-Prince to work for potato skins.

Development centered on peasants, with the creation of jobs for the rural milieu, will allow youth to stay in the country. It will allow those who are part of the exodus to rural areas after the earthquake to stay. Most of them are saying, “We want to stay but we need work.” Decentralizing Port-au-Prince and building up agriculture could make that happen. There are other things that could be done in the countryside, too. For example, the [earthquake-struck areas] have so much to rebuild, and construction materials could be made by the rural sector. If we have electricity, if we have schools, if we have work here, no one has a reason to move to Port-au-Prince.

We can establish programs to reinforce peasant and family agriculture to allow the rural milieu to produce food. Today we only produce enough to feed 40% of the population, but we have the potential to make our lands produce enough to feed the whole population and even to export. This must start with giving Haitians access to land, giving them security over it, and getting support for them to develop organic farming, what we call agro-ecology.

The policy we need for this to happen is food sovereignty, where the county has the right to define it own agricultural policies, to grow first for the family and then for local market, to grow healthy food in a way which respects the environment and Mother Earth, which is the mother of the generations.

Today, though Haiti is an essentially agricultural country, we are entirely dependent on the Dominican Republic. We get most of our eggs, bananas, and other things there. Even though it has the same neoliberalism [the free trade policies of globalization] we do, it still has a certain autonomy. For example, they decided they were going to be autonomous in the production of rice; they weren’t going to let Miami [imported] rice and second-hand clothes come into their country. They took measures to make that happen. For us, our free trade policies have inundated our market with imports. Our agriculture has been destroyed.

What we need is for us, the peasant organizations, to manage the food question. Our agenda is agricultural production that includes cattle raising, integrated water management, production of organic insecticides and fertilizer. We will continue with these but we will have to make some changes in our immediate priorities because right now we’re dealing with an exodus from the city, people we need to feed and take care of.

We need to establish seed banks and have silos where we can store our Creole seeds. Local, organic seeds is part of our base of food sovereignty. We have a danger today from countries in the Americas, especially the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina where Monsanto has already developed big farms to produce genetically modified seeds. If they start sending these seeds into Haiti, that is the death of peasants, who since independence more than 200 years ago have protected their seeds. It’s urgent that Haitians buy local seeds. Peasants are saying that they have til March 15 to buy their bean and vegetable seeds. With black peas, in two months you will have food.

What the danger we face today? It’s that food aid from USAID, and others are getting dumped in the country. We recognize that it’s essential in this moment of crisis. There is an urgency to get food in immediately but there’s also an urgency to produce food. We’ll show you the vegetables we can start harvesting after six weeks. In six months we need to start eliminating food aid so that peasants can produce and feed the population. Of course that requires a lot of help with irrigation.

What’s essential is agrarian reform which would allow us to make peasants the masters and the managers of their own land. It’s not possible that an American, a Frenchman, or a Swiss own big plots of land in Haiti. Land must be owned by the peasants who work it, and they need to be able to leave it to their descendants when they die. Along with land, we need credit, technical assistance, and markets to sell our products.

We’re telling everyone that if they want to want to help Haiti with food, they should help us with peasant production. We will need help with water management, we need cisterns, tools, technical support, rural universities. And we need to change the free trade policies. But in four to five years years we could become sovereign in food production.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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