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Upriver in Haiti

April 2006

Editor’s Note: Daniel Moss sent this post from Jacmel, a city south of Port au Prince on the Caribbean coast. They visited the small town of La Fond on 21st, the day of the national parliamentary elections.

Please join me in a jeep bumping over river stones with Vigot, an agronomist from KROS, the Regional Coordination of Southeast Organizations. As part of its Resource Rights Initiative, Grassroots International staff visited this remote area to observe up close the work of Haiti’s regional peasant associations.

We drove upriver, just outside of Jacmel to La Fond. A tap tap — the affectionate name for the elaborately painted Haitian buses, waded through the river, spitting up a wake that splashed passengers who had elbows resting on the sills of open windows. The tap tap was headed dozens of kilometers up the watershed to a town completely inaccessible in the rainy season, when the river swells. At that time, the villagers have to hope no sick child requires a clinic and that they don’t run low on food. There would be no way downstream except the raging river bed.

The whole watershed stretches 87 km; KROS is trying to rehabilitate 45 km of it. The first phase of this multiyear program is to draw irrigation water from the river into nearby fields. KROS members have built a 3km canal — no pumps, just the gravitational force of the river – to irrigate 250 hectares of land. A farmer hoed earth up around the base of green pepper plants. The plants will fruit for many months and each green pepper fetches a good price in the local market. In the next plot, a woman crouched next to a bulging eggplant plant and let a dozen mangos tumble out of the folded hem of her dress. Just next to the plants were mounds of stones like burial plots, stones that she had pulled out of the earth to make room for cultivation. The agronomist inspected the eggplants for pests. They were healthy.

Above the irrigation channel and the doors that control the water’s flow, the rocks of the river bank had been wrapped in chain link fence to prevent erosion. It was not surprising that the deforested river banks were badly eroded. The erosion was made much worse during a 1994 hurricane.

“And what about the trees,” we asked. “How will you reforest 45 km of watershed?” First we need to help the farming families meet their immediate economic needs, the farmers and agronomist said. The trees are essential to retain soil, they explained, but people will continue to cut down the trees to sell for charcoal if we don’t help them find a means of sustainable livelihood. Furthermore, to reforest 45 km of watershed, we need more than a project from an international development organization like Grassroots. We need state support. That’s where KROS’ role as a social movement and advocacy voice comes in to play.

Farmers, motivated by protecting a tiny, but growing livelihood and having engaged in technical and political trainings with KROS, become activists to advocate for their rights and needs. They will push for state funding — likely to come from large bilateral and multilateral funding agencies — for massive reforestation. This will not be easy given how absent and dysfunctional the Haitian state has been, how erratic foreign aid has been and how destructive that aid can be if not guided by a strong social movement like KROS that has a big picture development plan guided by local needs.

The agronomists were inspired to join the KROS team not only because of the technical value of the project — to help families grow nutritious food but because they are enthused by the participation of the community in building an organization. The professionals do not dominate the organization; the projects they help manage are guided by the organization’s political goals.

“If the goal is just development, that’s a lot easier,” KROS’ coordinator told us. “When the goal is to build a social movement to reclaim rights, that’s much harder.”

On the way back to Jacmel, we stopped at a voting center in the La Fond school. It was perhaps an ominous sign that an enormous tree had recently been felled just in front of the school. Leaves on its dead branches were just beginning to wilt. The elections, at a cost of over $70 million, had been marred by all manner of technical problems — numerous delays, people unable to register, voting centers too far from where people actually live. This, after years of UN presence in Haiti.

The voting center was tranquil; voters searched for their names on lists posted in front of classrooms and women sold fried sweet potatoes, fanning smoldering sticks to make flames and stirring porridge. Turnout was poor — perhaps 15% – for these legislative elections. It had been better for February’s presidential elections, but we were told that people do not have much faith that Haiti’s parliament has much power — it all rests in the president. Nevertheless, there is hope and optimism about Preval – one person told us perhaps too much hope. His party’s name is LESPWA — Kreyol for hope. So there is hope in Preval, but more hope in powerful organizations like KROS, restored watersheds and eggplants.

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