Grassroots International

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  • Haiti: The View from Atop a Composting Toilet

    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.

  • Waiting for the Promised Land

    Waiting is something Palestinians live with — they wait in refugee camps established as temporary solutions in 1948, they wait in political limbo, they wait to learn what the disengagement plan will mean for their lives, and they wait in lines. (We ourselves found ourselves waiting in an hour long line to get into Ramallah yesterday for a meeting with our partner, the Rural Womens' Development Society.)

    Many in the West Bank do not have to wait, however, to see how the geographic lines will be drawn in the peace plan blueprints because construction has already been completed in several areas. In the north, the Wall now completely encircles the city of Qalqiliya and encloses Tulkarm in a dead zone between the Wall and the invisible Green Line established in 1967 separating Israel from the Occupied Territories.

  • Moving Towards “Disengagement”

    Over breakfast Fabricio read us the headlines from one of Jerusalem's daily newspapers…It seems Sharon has encouraged the friends and families of settlers to visit their loved ones in Gaza this Passover because it will be the last time they will be able to enter. After that, the Israeli army will move quickly forward with the disengagement plan - much sooner than the original July timeframe.

    One of the objectives of our trip was to get a better sense of what the disengagement will mean for Gazans. The details of the plan remain quite mysterious and our questions about the disengagement were consistently met with shrugs. How will goods get in and out? What will become of the homes, lands and greenhouses of the settlements? How difficult will it be to get exit permits? Who will control the water and electricity? Will workers be able to continue working in Israel and in the industrial zones outside of Gaza? Will the Israelis coordinate at all with the Palestinian Authority?

  • Inside the Confines of Gaza

    The Gaza Strip is a difficult place to begin a trip. In Gaza, the full impact of the occupation hits you smack in the face the very second you reach Erez. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world...if not the most. According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), one of GRI's partners, approximately 1.3 million people are living on 365 square kilometers of land. Nearly 900,000 residents are considered refugees, about half of whom are living in the 8 camps in Gaza. 61% of the population is under 19 years old and the average family size of 6.9. In a recent publication, B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, reports that more than 77% of Gazans now live below the poverty line - almost double the number before the intifada -and that some 23 percent of Gazans are in "deep poverty," meaning that they do not reach the subsistence poverty line even after receiving aid from international agencies.

  • The UN in Hinche

    For our last night in the central plateau, we went down the hill from Papaye to Hinche for an evening in town. Since we arrived here, it's been easy to forget that the country is in the middle of a very dangerous political moment, and that there are forces afoot that would like to tear the country apart. Strolling through Hinche, the capital of the Central department, we came upon courtyard surrounded by accordion wire.

    Peering through the fence we could see a few white jeeps and row after row of tents--portable, nylon roofed Quonset huts, really. The Courtyard was the headquarters of the UN contingent here in Hinche and as we walked up the street and approached the gate, a trio of soldiers popped their heads out of a sand-bagged watch tower. They were smiling and saying "MINUSTAH," which is the name for this UN mission to Haiti.

    We tried to speak to them in Creole, in French, in Spanish and in Portuguese (most of the UN troops here are from Brazil), and we finally figured out that they were from Nepal, and that they didn't have any language in common with us or with the people that they are here to help.

  • One Finger Alone Can’t Eat Okra

    This morning we visited Kopa Koladè, the Koladè cooperative outside of Hinche. It was an amazing example of what a small group of people can accomplish if they work together.

    The MPP is focusing its agricultural development work on three themes: agro-silvaculture (an integrated approach to farming, re-forestation and resource management), water and alternative energy. The three are all essential components of a sustainable rural development platform. Without trees, it is hard to capture rain water for crops or drinking and precious topsoil is washed away. Without water, you can't grow trees or crops. Without alternative energy, you can't prevent peasants from cutting down trees for fuel.

  • A Little Water Goes a Long Way in Haiti

    This morning we visited the community of Lawob, where, with a grant from the European Union, the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) has constructed a small dam to capture the water from an intermittent stream.

    This deep into the drought there was not sign of the stream, anywhere. When we arrived at the site, we saw a small blue and black rowboat sitting under a mango tree in the middle of what looks like a desert. The lake was out of sight until we walked down a winding path, but before we got could even see the water, it was obvious that there was something special about this place.

    Flitting through the air were half a dozen Antillean Palm Swifts, tiny little insect eaters with pointy wings. They are supposed to be ubiquitous in Haiti, and these were the first I had seen after three days of looking. Downstream from the small lake was a lush garden that was greener than anything we've seen since we arrived in Haiti. (Most of the plants we have seen are covered with a fine layer of dust.)

  • Greetings from the Internet Cafe of the Peasant Movement of Papaye

    I am taking advantage of the few hours of electricity provided by the Peasant Movement of Papaye's (MPP) generator to post a few first impressions of our visit to Haiti.

    We flew out of Port-au-Prince on a six-seater plane. The pilot actually leaned his head out the window and shouted what I guess was "Contact!" in French when he turned on the propeller.

    Climbing over the hills surrounding the city, the devastating level of deforestation was obvious. There were sections where the topsoil had eroded down to the bare rocks. It looked like the bones of the mountains were poking through their skin. Haiti only has about 2% of its original forest cover left, but we still occasionally saw little columns of smoke rising where someone had set up a small charcoal kiln to try to turn a few of the remaining trees into charcoal in order to make a little cash. In addition to the chaotic political situation and the after-effects of the floods that hit Haiti last fall and spring, almost the entire country has been without rain for more than six months. Unable to plant their crops, many Haitians have no other way to make a living than mining the last of their country's trees for charcoal.

  • Visiting our Partners

    During the next two weeks, Grassroots Staff will be traveling to Haiti and Palestine to visit our partners. This is always one of the most exciting times of year for us, as we get a chance to see first hand the inspiring work they do under extremely challenging conditions. Daniel Moss and I will be traveling to Haiti, where we will divide our time between Hinche and Port-au-Prince from March 30-April 6. Jennifer Lemire and Stephanie Sluka Brauer will be traveling to Palestine, where they will visit a variety of communities throughout the occupied territories from April 1-April 12.

    As always, we are committed to sharing our impressions of these visits and the perspectives of our partners with you. We will be posting those impressions here from the field as often as we can, given the local infra-structure and our schedules.

    Stay tuned.

  • Their Land, Their Lives, Their Decisions

    From the 17th-19th of February, more than 80 participants from 11 countries gathered in Indonesia for the "Regional Conference on Rebuilding Peasants' and Fisherfolks' Livelihoods after the Earthquake and Tsunami Catastrophes" sponsored by the Via Campesina.

    They came from fisher and peasant organizations, from groups representing the victims of the earthquake and the Tsunami and from non-governmental organizations committed to community-led development and rebuilding efforts. Grassroots was proud to provide financial support to allow some of the attendees to make the trip. (We are also proud to have collected and passed through more than $20,000 to support Via Campesina's emergency relief and rebuilding efforts.)

  • Dying for Land Rights

    In my last post, I was writing about the real barriers -- including violent resistance on the part of big landholders and real estate speculators -- that make some of Hernando de Soto's land-tenure legalization theories untenable. Today, the New York Times brings us the sad news (registration required) of the assassination of Sister Dorothy Stang, who was killed for her work with poor and landless workers and her efforts to protect the rain forest from loggers and land speculators.

    We live in a world where real estate speculators will hire gunmen to shoot a nun four times in the chest in order to protect their profit margin. The idea that giving poor people a deed and saying, "OK, now you own this land, you can compete fairly in this predatory economic system" seems hopelessly naive.

    Sister Stang had been telling of death threats from the loggers and land speculators for years, but she couldn't turn to the police for protection, Rhoter writes, because they viewed her as a trouble-maker.

  • Make Trillions With No Money Down!

    Peruvian Economist Hernando de Soto has a simple idea that he believes could flood trillions of dollars into the poorest sectors of the world economy: by giving poor people clear legal title to the land they live on and the homes they've built, he says, we could give them the collateral they would need to get bank loans that could help them build businesses and enter the formal economy. The concept has made De Soto a star in the international development world. He's the toast of the World Bank and the darling of Davos, and if his theories worked, he'd be one of the greatest friends that the poor of the world have ever known.

    Unfortunately, like a lot of things that seem too good to be true, de Soto's plan doesn't pan out well in the real world.

  • Tsunami Rebuilding Priorities: Tourists or Residents?

    How people choose to rebuild a society that has been decimated by a natural disaster says a lot about what the rebuilders value most. As the tsunami relief efforts move beyond rescue and recovery into rebuilding, we've begun to see some disturbing signs about what the local governments value most in their countries. In Sri Lanka, local farmer and fisher groups are denouncing government efforts to push through -- in the guise of disaster relief projects -- neo-liberal policies that have already been rejected by the people at the ballot box. Patrick Barkham, writing in the Guardian, suggests that there are similar problems in Thailand.

    It's just one more reason why it's crucial to deliver aid dollars as directly as possible to the people who need them and who know best how to use them to solve their own problems.

  • Weekly Update from Via Campesina

    Throughout the area affected by the tsunami, the member organizations of the Via Campesina have been hard at work surveying the damage to rural communities, providing emergency food and medical relief, and beginning the process of rebuilding.

    In Thailand, the Federation of Southern Fisherfolk is about halfway through its survey of the more than 400 villages that were devastated by the tsunami. With estimates of nearly 5,000 dead, the villages have also lost thousands of boats plus nets and gear for catching fish, shrimp, crab and squid. The Federation has begun to provide maternal and child care, health care services, and boat and engine repair services.

  • Tsunami Rebuilding: Follow the Money

    Money is power, and with billions of dollars of aid and assistance flowing into the countries around the rim of the Indian Ocean, there is a lot of power at play.

    There are many examples of inspirational work being done: peasants distributing fresh fruit and vegetables to their hungry neighbors, bloggers on the internet setting up virtual bulletin boards to help reunite families and friends, churches, NGOs, and movements organizing to make sure that help goes where it is needed most.

    There are also examples of what seems like the kind of "help" people might be better off without.

    The US government has pledged $350 million (nearly ten times the amount Bush plans to spend celebrating his second inauguration) . Unfortunately, it seems that much of that money may be destined to support the repressive military regime in Indonesia. (See Roger Burbach and Paul Cantor's piece on Bush, the Pentagon and the Tsunami here.)

  • Update From Via Campesina on Local Relief Efforts

    The Via Campesina has begun to produce weekly news updates with reports from their members on the situation on the ground in the areas affected by the tsunami. In this first issue, you can read about groups like the Indonesian National Peasants Federation (FSPI). While donated food is stuck in airports and warehouses, local farmers are providing fresh fruit and vegetables, cassava and rice, and cooking tools and oil to the victims of the disaster. Other groups in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India are using their local movements to organize work crews to clear rubble, recruiting boat builders to begin to repair the devastated fishing fleet, and tailoring their relief efforts to meet the specific needs of the people who need the most help.