From Jacmel on the tropical blue Caribbean coast we drove up into the southern mountains to Cap Rouge. The main road had been washed away by floods and the route we took was a deeply potholed mix of dirt and gravel making for a very bumpy ride. We were in a rented SUV but saw scores of mopeds (mini motorcycles) carrying anywhere from 3 to 5 people along with their goods navigating the steep climb up the mountains with far more dexterity and speed than us.
All around us we saw small terraced plots intercropped with maize, beans, bananas, squashes, and tubers like cassava. Bright red Flame of the Forests dotted the hillsides throughout. Coconut palms grew somewhat less frequent as we climbed but betel nut palms with their cascading green blooms (which turn white, looking like grains of rice strung together) were abundant. Haitians feed the nut to their cattle, which I found intriguing since betel nut is commonly chewed by people all across South Asia (where I’m from).
In Cap Rouge we met about 40 members of VEDEK (Life, Hope and Development for Cap Rouge), a community-led peasant association that works closely with PAPDA (Haitian Platform for Alternative Development). People from the region formed VEDEK in 1988 after Hurricane Gilbert as a way to work together on reconstruction. Grassroots International has been supporting a number of PAPDA’s pilot projects, one of which is with VEDEK that provides income generation by converting cassava into a tortilla-like bread; but more importantly serves as an entry point for organizing local communities to be advocates for their development.
Lena Jean-Baptiste, a young woman leader from the aptly named Fanms Dyname (Dynamic Women), one of VEDEK’s gwoupmons (gwoupmon is a Kreyol derivation from the French groupement, or grouping), told us proudly, “VEDEK negotiated with mayors and local schools to get this hardy nutritious bread sold to school lunch programs in our region.” This seemed a lot like what organizations like the National Family Farm Coalition have advocated for in the US with farm-to-cafeteria programs.
At the cassava processing center the tubers are brought from around the area on mules and mopeds. They’re then peeled, washed, pounded to a pulp, all of the water removed, sieved, and dried to make flour. We got to try some of the tasty bread hot off the stove. Now VEDEK is working to get the bread marketed in Port au Prince, which means it’s also working on getting the government to provide a good paved road to Jacmel, the capital of the Southeast that is linked to Port au Prince.
We heard from a number of other youth activists like Jean Michelé from the gwoupmon Men e Men (Hand in Hand), who was an educator using popular theater and radio as a tool for consciousness raising and education. Maxi Elius from Epal pou Epal (Shoulder to Shoulder), who had participated in learning exchanges with organizations in Brazil and Venezuela (one of which Grassroots had supported), said, “This is very inspiring for us – to see that we are not alone in our struggles and goals. We learn first hand what people are doing in Venezuela on sustainable agriculture and teach them what we are doing here in Haiti.”