Away from the televised and broken streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti hosts some scenic worlds. Down south, there are remnants of cloud forests that fade into blue skies, and in the north cacti twist out of rust desert soil. The eye takes in lime green rice fields in the central valleys that give way to steep rings of mountains. Most of the people who live there are counting on humble rural livelihoods. They find an enormous source of dignity in their peasant identities. Little by little, their work breathes life back into a country that they vow to make self-sustaining once more.
Haitian peasants face a global economic showdown on their land. The border with the Dominican Republic is littered with—this time not so scenic—textile factories and free trade zones. Jatropha tree plantations for agrofuel export sweep up deserts and farmland alike—feeding foreign machines instead of local people. Most Haitians can’t afford basic food staples, as decades of speculative and disincentivizing agricultural policies (international and domestic) have decimated the local market. Often the international NGO community plays by the rules of the multilateral financial agencies, promoting cash-for-work and other programs that separate farmers from their land and allow multinational businesses to flourish. It wasn’t always this way. As late as the 1970s, Haiti’s majority peasant population sustained their families and communities through their own agricultural production. Almost all of them owned animals like pigs and goats—which they could sell at a moment’s notice if they needed to send a child to school or pay medical bills. The country was largely decentralized through rural development. When International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and donor countries forced Haiti and many surrounding Caribbean and Latin American countries to play by the rules of Reagan/Thatcher-style privatization and export policies, that all changed. Peasants moved out of the countryside in droves looking for work in the cities as the little investment in the rural areas dried up. Those who stayed were left with meager social services. One striking example of failed foreign policy in Haiti is the U.S. eradication of the entire pig population—leaving their owners no financial safety net. Those are the policies that have dominated Haiti from the outside for the past three decades. And shortly after the earthquake devastated the island in January 2010, many IFIs, donor countries, and corporations hailed those same policies as a plan to rebuild—repeating a cycle of misery and continual dependence on powerful interests. Haitian social movements say: enough is enough! From a small village in the central plateau to forgotten towns in the north and south, grassroots organizers are demonstrating that their solutions are the way towards a new Haiti. Several Haitian social movements started out clandestinely during the successive dictatorships of Francois (Papa Doc) and Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier. Organizers would meet in churches, homes, or anywhere that would lessen the chances of getting arrested, or worse. Today—although often harassed by Western-backed politicians—the movements are visible, both in terms of their energized base and outpouring of innovation. There are two words in the Haitian Creole language that act as the foundational building blocks of the Haitian movement, gwoupman (local community group) and konbit (cooperative communal labor). Operating in the spirit of both, movements on the local, regional, and national levels see their shared vision for Haiti as self-determination through healing a broken food system and unlocking the land’s potential. One of the most important local movements in Haiti, the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) has been working in a village and surrounding area bearing the same name for nearly 40 years. At the time, the land in Papaye was barren—plagued by the deforestation that has now left Haiti with less than 2% of the trees that used to protect their land and provide food. Thanks to decades of organizing, it’s a different story in Papaye today—peasants in the village and area around it have planted more than 20 million trees, replenishing the land and food supply. “This place became a paradise and gives us hope for the whole country,” said MPP’s director Chavannes Jean Baptiste, “there was not one tree around when we started.” Even though the MPP remains dedicated to their work in Papaye, they were determined not to stop there. The small movement birthed a national movement, National Congress of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPNKP), in order to replicate Papaye’s experience throughout the country. MPNKP has spearheaded projects in each of Haiti’s 10 departments, ranging from pig repopulation (using Creole varieties from the Caribbean) to agroecology. All of their work is deeply rooted in popular education and organizing. MPNKP is one of two national movements in Haiti. The other, Tet Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Heads Together Small Peasant Movement), is equally committed to social change in Haiti—starting with seeds. “We provide peasants with local seeds,” one of their leaders Rosnel Jean Baptiste explained. “We understand that seeds mean much more than economic support. Seeds are political.” Tet Kole also organizes bold demonstrations for food sovereignty and agrarian reform. Often, Tet Kole’s peasants march with representatives from the other movements. In between the national and local movements, peasants in the southernmost part of the island felt they needed a different model, something that would represent them regionally—and created the Coordination of the Organizations of the South-East (KROS). French colonizers had once done a great job dividing up territories into an administrative matrix they could control. Today, in a creative twist, KROS organizers are borrowing this model from the former occupier to organize their movement. In the absence of state services, KROS has mobilized their base to build roads and schools. Because fatalism is not an option, Haitian movements continue to make great strides in the face of speculation, corporate and NGO agendas, and insecurity. When forces push against the movements—collectively, they resist.