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Haiti: The View from Atop a Composting Toilet

April 2005

I’m switching the channel from Palestine back to Haiti. I had meant to file this massive missive while still in Haiti but lack of electricity thwarted my efforts and then soon thereafter a vicious bug that accompanied me home laid me flat in the hospital. Typing with IV tubes in your arm is harder than you might think.

It turns out it’s actually not so very far from Palestine to Haiti. About a year ago, I reported from Palestine on these very pages. Now on this recent journey to Haiti, I was amazed to discover the similar challenges that both Haitians and Palestinians face — a highly militarized conflict, a weak to absent state, shaky water and land security and remarkable grassroots organizations working for social change – just to name a few.

In the training center of the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP) on Haiti’s Central Plateau, a cement tower soars high above an irrigated vegetable garden and a goat family’s bamboo hut. The tower is home to a composting toilet — a double header in fact. It sits upon a cavernous chamber where waste will be converted into compost — a necessary transformation in a country where the soil badly needs fertilizer and scraps of organic material are hard to come by. Local lore has it that the site of the toilet was chosen for its sweeping view. The high perch will purportedly attract users at the same time as it inspires fear —— it looks out over rolling hills upon plains of deforested, eroded, tortured earth all the way to the horizon.

Whenever I see a composting toilet I think of how handy they were in El Salvador for storing clothes, a kind of chest of drawers. The Salvadorans where I lived never got into the habit of actually using them for generating compost. But here at the MPP’s training center, I think the composting toilet likely has a bright future. Why? The foundation of all of the MPP’s work is popular education, Paolo Freire style. Freire was a Brazilian educator harsh on a “banking model” of pedagogy in which the teacher views the learner’s brain as an empty receptacle in which to “deposit” information. Education for liberation or popular education, reverses the teacher-student power dynamic, starts from the learner’s experience and knowledge base to affirm and build understanding and critical analysis. The purpose of popular education for the MPP is to help their members see that they were not predetermined to be poor or powerless, that change is possible, and that they themselves can be powerful and strategic change agents.

The MPP puts enormous effort and resources into training “animateurs” or facilitators to lead dynamic participatory workshops in their cooperatives on any number of topics — from reforestation to free trade agreements to composting toilets. The MPP doesn’t introduce technical solutions to social, economic or environmental problems without offering in depth reflection on why the problem requires the technical fix exists in the first place. Context is everything – which to Chavannes Jean Baptiste, the MPP’s Executive Director explains why the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) reforestation program tends to fuel deforestation. “They think reforestation is about distributing trees. We know from experience that successful reforestation is about working with people to understand why the trees are cut in the first place, what the impact is on lives and livelihoods, what are the environmental, political, social and economic consequences and finally how communities can live sustainably with their natural resources. The tree distribution is the easy part. If you don’t do the education first, tree distribution leads to lots of dead saplings.” Over the past decades, the MPP has trained scores of reforestation monitors and planted between 300,000 to one million trees each year.

The Worst Job in Haiti

The scale of reforestation and watershed protection needed to revive Haiti’s ailing ecology and advance rural livelihoods truly boggles the mind. Clearly, the MPP can not do it alone. Fortunately that is not their goal. They were born as a peasant movement to educate and mobilize farmers to hold public institutions accountable to advance basic rights and help rural areas thrive. In fact, they are highly critical of NGOs that essentially privatize services that the government ought to provide. The MPP maintains that it is the role of the state to provide basic infrastructure like potable water, passable roads, schools, hospitals, and a healthy environment.

It’s a noble idea to promote civic responsibility but there’s a difficulty in the Haitian context. A big one. When I asked a cooperative member who specifically they attempt to influence in government to win these improvements, he said simply, “We have no government.” His fellow coop members nodded in sad agreement.

We met with Hinche’s (the departmental capital of the Central Plateau) Mayor, Hinche’s National Delegate as well as the Vice Delegate. With little time to spend together, I sought to the answer to one question only: the MPP seems to be doing extraordinary things to provide water for rural communities but they can’t do it alone. We understand that the situation of government is unstable in Haiti right now, but what are you able do to help communities get water? The mayor hesitated, was silent for a long breath and said, “very small things”. Heartened by his humility, I probed further, “ah yes, we all do small things, but together they add up. What is it that you do? “They’re quite small really, I’m embarrassed to say.” Please go on,” I begged. “Well, we can occasionally offer a student a scholarship, get a family a medical consultation and at the end of last year, we offered some people temporary jobs.” Typhoid is spiking right now in Hinche because these public officials’ constituents draw their drinking water from a filthy river that winds through the center of town. The officials can only watch.

These officials are part of the transitional government formed since Aristides’ ouster in February 2004. They explain that their inability to act is due in part to lack of aid flowing to the rural areas — promised international aid has never materialized, and that what little they can do is devoted to supporting their embattled police force fighting off disgruntled ex-soldiers and pro-Aristide paramilitary gangs (chimeres). They report that they have no resources to deliver improvements to their constituents and that there’s a price on their heads placed by the ex-soldiers and chimeres for collaborating with the UN’s feeble efforts at disarmament.

There are, however, some large development projects underway in the area (such as reforestation). But the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) runs their projects through large US-based NGO’s rather than through the municipalities. The projects are attached to food aid delivery programs — anathema to the MPP’s pro-farmer work (the aid depresses farm products and can be a disincentive to farming). USAID claims to be a serious promoter of decentralization but at the end of the day, their bypassing of the municipalities has the same diminishing impact on the availability of public resources as the anti-government rhetoric of the Bush administration. It was hard to imagine what would drive someone to want to be a public servant under these circumstances.

Preventing water privatization

There is an usual kind of water privatization taking place on the Central Plateau. In the face of abundant thirst, water entrepreneurs buy a 55 gallon drum, truck the liquid over awful roads and sell gallons retail at a hefty profit. It’s not the privatization story we normally read about – the transnational giant buying previously public water supplies and delivering the precious liquid to those who can afford it — but similarly in this system the poor spend an enormous portion of their meager income on water or go thirsty.

What’s the best guarantee to preventing water privatization? It is a question the MPP loses sleep over and has discussed in-depth with its membership. Illiterate peasants in the ranks of the MPP are well-versed on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the loopholes they offer for the big slurping sound of transnational water companies gaining control of local water sources. The MPP believes that the best prevention is an engaged and active civil society, a powerful constituency that’s worked hard to establish access to, and control over, their own water sources and is committed to keeping its water supply public. Here on the plateau, the MPP works with dozens of cooperatives on myriad water projects, from protecting springs to digging wells to building solar-powered pumps to installing gutters on schools and churches to steer rain into community-built cisterns. Cooperative members tend to be proud members of the MPP, strongly identified with the power of its 30 year old organization and its vision of a dignified livelihood in the countryside. I don’t expect Vivendi or Bechtel will open a water bottling plant in the Central Plateau anytime soon, but if they’re not dissuaded by the terrible roads they will surely be dissuaded by the peasants’ resolve.

Rumbles of Unity

Differences of opinion of course exist as to how to win justice for the region’s small farmers. Not surprisingly, these differences have spawned numerous grassroots organizations. In late April, an unprecedented meeting of peasant organizations from around Haiti and the Caribbean will take place in Port-au-Prince under the umbrella of the Via Campesina. The Via Campesina is an international small farmer and fisherfolk network — between 100,000,000 to 200,000,000 rural people strong – that seeks to protect peoples’ food sovereignty (defined as the right to choose appropriate policies and practices to meet local food needs). Affiliations to the Via Campesina in Haiti are increasing these days, strengthening a network where coalitions can be formed and common strategies can be forged.

Certainly one area of unity among these affiliates is vocal disappointment with USAID’s rural development policies in Haiti. A leading agronomist for the aid agency told us during a visit that “Haiti’s future is not in small-scale agriculture.” Though the transition may be painful, he’d like to see the peasants migrate into economic sectors where Haiti has a comparative advantage. We ran out of time to pursue the conversation but I suppose that comparative advantage is Haiti’s ailing maquila sector (which is losing factories to China). In spite of USAID dismissing the livelihoods of millions of families, Haitian peasant organizations are unified in standing by — and not giving up on – rural families.

Can organizational strength and vision — the MPP’s and their Via Campesina colleagues — make up for the political instability, the absent state and an unconscionable paucity of international aid, to make the countryside flourish? That’s a tough request. But the MPP has been hoeing this row now for some three decades and in collaboration with their international allies, I suspect their work will deepen and evolve in ways we can’t imagine today over the next decades.

On our last day on the Central Plateau, Chavannes Jean Baptiste took us to the waterfall at Bassinzin. He pointed to the cascading water and the terraced plots of reforested saplings on the adjacent slope, “This waterfall used to be so powerful that you couldn’t swim up to it. Now it’s just a trickle of what it used to be. But still, it’s the last major source of water on the plateau for hundreds of communities. The last thing I want to do before I die is protect that watershed all the way back to its source. 40 miles back up into the mountains.” If the MPP can keep on forming capable leaders, successfully experiment with appropriate technologies and play a lead civil society role in encouraging the emergence of a functioning state that could, for example, create community forests, Chavannes just might have a chance at realizing his dream. And liberal application all along the watershed of the compost from those towering toilets might just help that dream thrive.

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