From the capital, Port Au Prince, we take a small five-seater plane to the Central Plateau in Haiti’s interior. My colleague Maria Aguiar and I are flying to Hinche, the capital of the Department of the Centre. From there we will drive to Papaye to visit Grassroots International’s partner the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (Peasant Movement of Papaye), which is convening to celebrate its 35th anniversary and chalk out a plan of action for the next five years.
The starkness of the landscape as we fly over the countryside is immediately apparent. Most of the mountains that surround Port au Prince and that we cross to get to the Central Plateau are dusty brown and devoid of any vegetation. Many have deep white gashes running the length of the peaks where limestone quarrying or erosion caused by deforestation have left gaping wounds. Rivers (this is the dry season) are wide and dry, speckled intermittently with shallow pools of water.
Hinche, however, is awash in color – an explosion of red and green on the dry brown landscape. Flags, buntings, t-shirts, bandanas, and posters in the MPP’s colors proclaim the celebration. The MPP, Haiti’s largest and oldest peasant organization, works in the Central Plateau to organize peasant farmers and farm workers and mobilizes them to be strong advocates for change and have a voice in Haiti’s development.
As Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the MPP’s founder and leader explains, “The organization uses popular education as a tool, focusing on several entry points for organizing the rural population: agroecology [a method of environmentally sustainable agriculture], alternative income generation projects, cooperatives, integrated health care, and leadership training.”
We are not visiting any of the MPP’s projects, spending two days observing its convention. Hundreds of delegates have traveled (most of them by foot) from across the department (in Haiti a department is similar to a state in the U.S.) to participate. For them this meeting is an important way to participate in the running of their organization, and participate they do!
“We are fighting for a new Haiti” one participant says. Speaking from the floor, delegates talk about the importance of pulling together home-grown resources and not being dependent on outside support. Men and women both stress the need for jaden lakay/prekay (home/backyard gardens) for attaining self-sufficiency in food production, relating it to the concept of food sovereignty for Haiti. Youth members of the MPP who might be selected for scholarships to train as agronomists or educators commit to giving back to the organization by working for it and contributing 20% of their salary.
There are visitors at the “kongrè” as well. Besides us, there are a couple of foreign delegations, including Juana Mercedes Brioso, the General Coordinator of CONAMUCA (National Confederation of Rural Women) from Haiti’s neighbor to the east – the Dominican Republic, with which it shares the island of Hispaniola. CONAMUCA, like the MPP, is a member of the Via Campesina, a 200 million strong global network of peasant and farmworker organizations. Juana’s presence, she notes, “is a way of expressing solidarity with neighbors.”
More importantly, there are representatives of other Haitian peasant organizations, such as Tet Kole (which works primarily in the Departments of the Artibonite and the North West) and KROS (Kordinasyon Rejyonal Organysasyon Sides), a southeast regional organization. This is a sign that peasant and rural organizations across the country recognize the importance of working together and presenting a unified front for demanding the rights of Haiti’s marginalized rural majority. Such attempts have been made in the past but it seems that this time around the different organizations and their leadership are acutely aware of the need to bury their differences and work together — and, in fact, all of them told us so. To them, and to us, this is one of the most hopeful signs of the convention.
The other is the process of grassroots democracy in action. Since February, MPP members have been debating at the cooperative, zonal, and arrondissement (county) levels various resolutions and ideas for action. These are now put forward by the convention delegates (who represented the larger membership) as resolutions for consideration by the organization’s general assembly. Proposed as a slate, the resolutions are to be voted up or down by the delegates – but not without spirited debate even at this stage, with passionate individuals making the case for or against certain ideas and proposals. Young and old, women and men, take the microphone, either supporting or challenging a proposal or asking probing questions of the organization’s leadership. In the end, the count is 304 votes for, 38 against, and 13 abstaining.
One of the most significant proposals (and one that had generated some debate) is the idea that as an organization and a movement, the MPP should not support or endorse any particular electoral candidate, especially one not known to it, in elections, in recognition of the importance of maintaining its political autonomy and holding accountable whichever political party or candidate elected. This is a crucial step for building peasant unity and jointly demanding peasant rights and the rights of the majority rural Haitian population. It passes with the adoption of the slate.