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Lessons from Haiti with Journalist Mark Bittman

I needed inspiration to start 2018 – a reminder of the power, dignity, and capacity of people to work together, take positive action, and create a better society. So I started the year with a visit to rural Haiti.

I was accompanied by Mark Bittman, a writer of 20 books on cooking and food, and a former New York Times food columnist. Mark is working on a new book on hopeful, viable food and farming alternatives that exist and can grow in the world. In planning travels to a number of countries this year, he wanted to learn about the work that peasant farmers and communities in Haiti are doing to spread agroecology and re-build local food economies. My colleague Cantave Jean-Baptiste, Director of Partenariat pour le Développement Local (PDL), and I were happy to accompany Mark to hear and learn from rural families, tour their farms, experience their food, understand their challenges.

Mark shared his reflections on the trip in this article. When we were together, I asked him his impressions.

“We are visiting towns where the populations can’t be more than a few thousand, and a thousand of the people belong to an association,” he said. “That is effectively a collective, a democratic representation of a thousand people or more that are trying to make their voice heard, are determining to some extent how the local land is used, are making, if not rules then suggestions for how agriculture can be done in a sustainable way, and are teaching people about agriculture, about health, about human rights and so on, and this is all happening from the ground up. This is appealing not only on a food level, but on a human level.”

Here are some of my own impressions from the visit:

Farmers teaching farmers: PDL has done excellent work strengthening local peasant associations to develop their own programs to test and spread effective agroecology strategies across villages. We met with the leaders of the Peasant Association of Savanette, who explained to us that 3 or 4 volunteer agricultural promoters are responsible for outreach in each of the 12 villages where they work. Each promoter is responsible for working with 10 additional farmers to help them develop what they refer to as ‘model agroecological farms.’ Through this strategy, PDL has strengthened 15 peasant associations in recent years to help over 10,000 farmers to develop model agroecological farms. One farmer who we visited gave us a mini-course on the various strategies for building soil conservation barriers, depending on the type of land, the materials available, and the land preparation done the previous season.

“Rooted” farms: For most of these model farms, that means they have improved and diversified their farms so that they now produce food security for families throughout the year. This is no small accomplishment in the face of Haiti’s challenging farming conditions, and the added challenges created by climate change. In each community, farmers develop different names for these ‘model agroecological farms.’ Some call them chouk (or rooted) farms, because of the integration of root crops and tubers, as well as trees. Others call them ‘365 day farms’ because they provide food each day. A typical farm may have beans, bananas, plantains, mangos, breadfruit, sweet potato, cassava, yam, malanga (elephant ear), pigeon pea, corn, and other crops, each producing food at different times.

Diverse farms for nutritious meals: If farm production increases but family nutrition does not improve, something is not working. Community members learn how to prepare food from their diverse and productive farms, in order to create nutritious meals. Health volunteers teach family members about three food groups that our bodies need: to build the body, protect the body, and give the body energy. They often cook community meals in three pots, one for each food group.

Fixing markets that don’t work: In much of the region where Groundswell is supporting PDL’s work, sugar cane is prevalent. It’s a drought resistant crop that can be turned into income when processed into raw sugar, syrup and alcohol. Yet, there are not enough artisanal mills where farmers can mill their cane to extract the juice. Amazingly, even rural families often consume imported sugar, while their own sugar cane rots on the ground around them before they are able to process it and earn income. A similar lack of mills and artisanal facilities exists for processing peanuts into peanut butter, cassava into traditional kasav bread, or corn into flour. Farmers lose income, and families end up eating imported, subsidized and often processed foods like pasta that are less healthy for them. To counteract this reality, Groundswell and PDL are helping farmer associations to create small enterprises, owned and run by the farmers themselves, to process their crops, earn more income, and provide healthy local food for people to eat. The last time I visited, seven farmer enterprises had been set up. Now there are thirteen.

Farmers using peanut mills to process their crops.

Farmers as citizens, building democracy: Farmers associations are democratic, community run organizations where local governments are often weak. But, they are also working to ensure that their local governments represent them and do their jobs. During our visit, farmer leaders were meeting with other local citizens on a training workshop organized by PDL and other allies, to understand how the local government’s budget works, and how they can engage to ensure those resources are well spent to improve life.

At a time when we are looking for silver linings, it’s an inspiration to see the fruits of this work in rural Haiti. Through Groundswell’s collaboration, the outstanding work of PDL, and the organizing and creative work of rural families, lasting changes are taking root.

 

February 12, 2018, A Trip Report from Steven Brescia, Executive Director

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