Rehabilitating Haiti’s Central Plateau Through Agroecology and Water Access

The Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) is one example of the amazing work peasant organizations are doing across rural communities in Haiti. In those communities, peasant organizations are working hard with limited resources. While post-2010 earthquake relief funds from big international funders (like USAID) are being squandered building large industrial complexes on productive agricultural land, peasant organizations are planting trees to stave off soil erosion, preserving Creole seeds to ensure seed sovereignty for future generations, and improving access to life-giving water. These are no small tasks considering the uphill battles they face in their struggle for land, water and food.
 
Headquartered in Haiti’s Central Plateau, the MPP, a Grassroots International partner, is transforming local food production and improving Haiti’s environment. By working with local peasants the MPP planted nearly 200,000 trees in 2011 in an effort to reforest the Central Plateau and promote environmental stewardship within an agroecological framework that underscores the importance of food sovereignty. Agroecology is a whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, sustainable agriculture and local food system experiences. In essence, agroecology offers a holistic path from food dependency to food sovereignty.
 
In Haiti, widespread deforestation has led to soil erosion and deadly mudslides during the rainy and hurricane seasons. In this fragile environmental landscape, rehabilitating Haiti’s environment for the benefit of current and future generations is vital. The MPP’s work in this area has been both visionary and pragmatic, weaving reforestation efforts with solutions that address the needs of poor rural communities. It’s in this context that the MPP is rehabilitating Haiti’s Central Plateau through reforestation, food sovereignty and water infrastructure projects.
 
Reforesting with an Eye Toward Sustainable Livelihoods
 
The MPP doesn’t plant trees haphazardly in communities, but instead places botanically appropriate fruit-bearing trees alongside forest trees. Fruit-bearing trees (banana, mango, peanut, plantain, etc.) provide poor farmers with food and income. Forest trees protect against soil erosion, while providing a habitat for Haiti’s fauna. Through this combination, desperate communities who would otherwise cut down trees to be sold as charcoal (the primary energy source for over 80 percent of the population) are generating income from one season to the next selling produce from their trees. But since providing peasant farmers an alternate income stream doesn’t negate their community’s need for fuel, MPP has embarked on a partnership with engineers at MIT to produce alternatives to charcoal.
 
The environmental benefits of the MPP’s approach in the Central Plateau are manifold: precious top soil that would otherwise wash away during heavy rains is retained, fewer trees are felled to meet economic needs, and poor families dependent on wood for fuel will have access to alternatives. Another benefit to this approach is the movement toward food sovereignty – namely the right of communities and consumers to control the foods that they produce and eat. 
 
Seedling Food Sovereignty
 
Rural communities are not only engaged in reforestation and soil conservation through tree planting, but they are also controlling the processes of food production in their communities. Those living on the land decide what to plant, when to plant, and who benefits from their production. Rather than invest in export-oriented agriculture, MPP members are producing for local and national consumption, and doing it with Creole seeds garnered from seed banks the MPP and other peasant groups have established throughout the country.
 
For Haitian peasants, Creole seed banks are the first elemental step toward food sovereignty. By using Creole seeds local peasant farmers in Haiti, like their counterparts worldwide, are freeing themselves from companies like Monsanto. MPP’s members are also breaking the cycle of chemical-dependent agriculture by adopting organic farming to ensure that future generations will benefit from Haiti’s natural resources and biodiversity. For peasants worldwide protecting local biodiversity has become a rallying point in the face of agribusinesses’ rapid development of genetically modified and patented seeds and the promotion of industrial “farming”. 
 
One way the MPP is creating the necessary framework for food sovereignty in the communities where they work is through “jardin prekay,” or home gardens. Last year the MPP provided 2,500 local families with the tools, seeds, water sources and technical training needed to produce food for domestic consumption and local markets. Often these gardens are scraps of land close to home or in walking distance from homes, but where land isn’t available gardens are created using old rubber tires. The MPP ensures these gardens thrive in the dry season by improving water access for participants.
 
Ensuring Food Sovereignty through Water Access
 
In the past few years the MPP has increased the number of water infrastructure projects they undertake in concert with peasants and marginalized rural communities in Haiti. Since water is integral for all life forms (human, animals, plants), the MPP is providing clean water sources for household consumption and access to water for agricultural use and animal husbandry. In 2011 alone the MPP built 100 cisterns, dug 12 wells, and captured five water sources in local communities in the Central Plateau. For peasant farmers, agricultural extension projects, especially in water access, is essential for their livelihoods. As climate change brings longer periods of drought to Haiti, peasants will need alternatives to rain-fed agriculture.
 
For families with better access to water, their households and communities benefit from having fresh, healthy produce available year round. Families with home gardens supply local markets with surplus from their gardens thereby ensuring food security in their communities. Another benefit of having greater numbers of clean water sources in these local communities is a decrease in water-borne illness, which can severely weaken immune systems, especially in children. One such illness is cholera, which was introduced into Haiti by UN Peacekeepers shortly after the earthquake, and has since spread throughout the country causing 7600 deaths nationally and infecting nearly 600,000 people.
 
Through their water infrastructure development projects, the MPP is providing a basic service to rural communities cut off from the largess of the Government of Haiti. These communities also represent part of the 65 percent of the population who live in rural areas and produce 40 percent of Haiti’s food, but are neglected by the central government.  The MPP’s work in agroecology, food sovereignty, and water access and management is becoming more important after this year’s drought and hurricane season destroyed 70 percent of the country’s agricultural production. Going forward only a systematic approach similar to that of MPP will transform Haitian agriculture.