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Environment and Food in Haiti: Two Crises, One Solution

Fast-growing plants and used tires in a demonstration garden of the Peasant Movement of Papay. Photo: Roberto (Bear) Guerra.

In part II of an interview, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste discusses the role that agriculture can play in Haiti in addressing both the environmental and food crises. (See “The Clock is Set to Zero” for the first part.) 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). Until this year, he also sat on the international coordinating committee of Vía Campesina, a confederation of organizations of peasant, family, indigenous, and landless farmers from more than sixty countries.

The solutions Jean-Baptiste and many other Haitians propose reside in part in one set of policies and programs which can restore land and other riches of nature, and another set which can protect small-scale, sustainable agricultural production from agribusiness. An additional part of the solution rests in agro-ecology, a model of agriculture based on environmental health. Developed as an alternative to the Green Revolution, agro-ecology urges local production of healthy, organic food for local markets. It values biodiversity and traditional knowledge, and opposes genetic modification and patenting of seeds. Haiti is among the many countries with thriving movements of organized farmers who are advancing this model.

Jean-Baptiste gave this interview from Papay, where the MPP has created ecological demonstration gardens. The farmers maximize the productivity of small pieces of land in ways which sustain, rather than exhaust, it. They use all natural resources efficiently in bio-loops. They germinate seedlings inside of discarded tires and use other inventive gardening methodology. They are growing fast-growing plants which yield harvests in six weeks, in addition to other organic vegetables and medicinal plants. Their goats, rabbits, and chickens consume kitchen and garden waste and, from it, produce manure which is then used as fertilizer. Compost serves as additional fertilizer. The operation also involves draining gray water from kitchens and showers, and running it through several ponds filled with sand, gravel, and charcoal; with the cleaned water that emerges, they breed fish and irrigate gardens. MPP also employs cisterns, gravity-fed irrigation, and other catchment and watering systems to conserve and maximize water during dry season.

This interview predated the news that Monsanto has donated 60,000 seed sacks (475 tons) of hybrid corn seeds and vegetable seeds to Haiti. For Jean-Baptiste’s and the MPP’s response, see “Haitian Farmers Commit to Burning Monsanto Seeds.”

“In contrast to the destruction that the industrial sector is causing around the world, Vía Campesina and other groups such as Friends of Nature have done studies that show that peasant and family agriculture can combat climate change. I’m in a Vía Campesina commission on climate change, and there we’re clear: to impact climate change, we have to change the mode of agricultural production. Peasants around the world are very vigilant about this. In Haiti we have an advantage, which is that the majority of peasants grow only organically.

“We see the development of Haiti through the production of local, organic food; the conservation of that food; and its transformation into products for the cities. The peasants have said, ‘Let’s talk about storage and transformation and commercialization in local and national markets. Let’s develop an economy where peasants have control.’ This could really develop the riches of the country while bringing Haiti back environmentally.

“We see reforestation as extremely important. Haiti has less than 2% tree cover. Two years ago we asked for each rural section to plant 10,000 trees each, or 56,000 trees each year. That would allow us to cover the country.

“Also, if we could plant fruit orchard plantations, that would have three objectives. It would protect the environment. It would give peasants income so that wouldn’t have to cut down tress to make wood charcoal. It would also mean that we wouldn’t have to depend any more on the Dominican Republic for the lemons, the coconuts, the oranges and other food we consume.

“I talked with an exporter who told me that 200,000 cases of Haitian [Madame] Françique mangos are sold in five square kilometers in Manhattan. That means that there is an enormous market for mangoes in the U.S., which could also help us combat deforestation.

“One thing we need for that to happen is integrated water management systems. Now because of deforestation, when it rains, we get floods. Maybe an earthquake comes every 50 or 100 years, but floods are each year, and hurricanes almost every year. Houses get washed away, animals get washed away, land gets washed away, people get washed away. I was talking with a peasant who said we used to have two seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. Now we have two seasons: the dry season and the flood season.

“With good irrigation systems we could produce a lot of food and we could help the environment. In Haiti, we have 300,000 hectares of land that could be irrigated, but we have maybe 30,000 or 40,000 that have a good irrigation system now.

“We’re developing different irrigation systems with wells that you pump with solar panels. You can use cisterns that catch water on the roof. We’ve had great experiences with one or two families capturing 15,000 liters of water that have carried them through the dry season. We have other, more advanced systems of mountaintop catchment lakes, which let you to hold rain in lakes that you make with bulldozers or abundant peasant labor, so that when the dry season comes you can have water and you can still grow food. You can also treat gray water, like in the MPP center; we treat the water that comes from the shower and kitchen with a series of lakes with gravel, sand, and charcoal.

“One of the things we’re doing is creating solar energy, because peasants should have electricity. One member of MPP has two lightbulbs run from a solar panel. He can play his radio, charge his telephone, even watch television.

“All our public positions are clearly against genetically modified seeds and against agro-fuels. We’re in a heated battle against the introduction of GM [genetically modified] seeds and against jatropha plantations. We’re especially against jatropha, the plant that has a seed that gives oil which you can make agro-diesel from. We don’t call it bio-diesel, because we in Vía Campesina are clear that ‘bio’ means life and that you can’t mix life with diesel and big business. They say jatropha is a miracle plant, but from other studies and my own, I know it’s a catastrophe plant. One thing we want is a law against jatropha and a law against the introduction of GM seeds. Last year we marched to the parliament, and we were well-received. In October we met with the parliament again, and we were going to meet them again in January but now we’re in a national crisis. But peasants are very vigilant about this.

“We in Haiti are committed to staying a county where organic, biological agriculture dominates. We know that Clinton and the multinationals, the IMF and the WTO, have another plan for us – one based on the import of GM seeds and food aid, one based on making us grow for export, including growing for agro-diesel. But we’re putting on pressure to say: no, that’s not what Haiti needs, here is what popular Haitian organizations want, here is our agenda.”

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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