By Tom Ricker, Quixote Center
The first time I visited Gros Morne in the north of Haiti was in the spring of 2005. I was there to witness a reforestation and agricultural project that the Quixote Center from the United States (http://quixote.org/programs/haiti-reborn) had been supporting for six years. On my first evening I took part in a local environmental committee meeting with Pat Dillon and Father Nesly Jean-Jacque from the program, as well as local magistrates and representatives from other local organizations. Having been in Washington D.C. for several years with a graduate degree in political economy, I thought I understood policy, and the underlying structural problems facing Haiti.
However, I was there to listen, not talk, and what I discovered was that the immediate pressing obstacle to successful tree planting in Gros Morne was not a World Bank structural adjustment program, but goats. Goats ate the saplings. The issue at stake in this meeting was how to enforce the law that required goats to wear a large collar thus making it difficult for them to get through fences. The police chief got an earful, but it was clear he was facing a difficult task.
The project in Gros Morne provides a counter-narrative to dominant thinking on “development.” The project was created, planned and initiated by people in the local community. And it works because they know about the goats. All around Haiti are other projects, no doubt ingenious back at the office in D.C., but ultimately failing on the ground. This is particularly true in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. The tendency is to blame Haitian communities and the government for these failures. But then, in many cases, the people in Haiti were not even consulted. There is another way to approach international assistance that is more about providing solidarity and respect. It works.
In 1998 members of the community of Gros Morne, about 20km northeast of Gonaives in northern Haiti, organized a committee to deal with the erosion that was destroying the highway north of town, the main artery between Gonaives and Cap Haitien. North of the city, the road runs along a river past Tet Mon. Where the then treeless mountain met the highway, heavy rains would wash earth down across the road, making passage difficult, at times impossible. The committee was tasked with finding long term solutions. Among the decisions was to begin planting trees along the roadway. With the support of the local parish which donated land and resources to the effort, the Jean Marie Vincent Forest was established along with the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center.
The reforesting of Tet Mon was one of the first initiatives and became a demonstration project; a way to show the community the benefits of reforestation and also for those involved in the project to learn how to effectively replant a hillside. A tree nursery was established at the formation center to nurture seedlings, and quickly the center itself became a space for teaching community members how to nurture the young trees. Over the next 10 years 250,000 trees were planted throughout the community of Gros Morne.
As the program has grown it has become about much more than trees. A major emphasis of the program has been strategic planting to preserve water sources and catchment areas. Agronomists at the program have experimented with a variety of grasses looking for strains that would do well in Haiti’s environment and be deeply rooted enough to slow or halt erosion. In addition, providing food security is an important aspect of the program. The formation center hosts a garden as well as the tree nursery, where agronomists explore techniques of organic agriculture and test varieties of fruits of vegetables. The tree nursery and garden emphasize planting that can have specific benefit to families in terms of food and preparing items for market. The formation center hosts training sessions on gardening techniques, reaching 600 people a year from Gros Morne and neighboring communities.
Expanding the effort
In the fall of 2004 the region around Gonaives was hit hard with a tropical storm. Mudslides in Gonaives killed tens of thousands of people and left many more homeless. The program in Gros Morne suffered some water damage from the storm, but the areas replanted did not suffer massive mudslides. Reforestation works – but it was also clear that the underlying structural crisis of agriculture in Haiti was the real problem. Planting one hill at a time is not enough.
The cause of de-forestation in Haiti, as in much of the world, lay in the transformation of small-holder economies into larger mono-crop ventures that concentrate land and eliminate work, and force people to farm marginal lands, cut trees for sale, or leave for cities in order to survive. Longer-term solutions have to address these issues. Much of this is outside the capacity of any one project to solve, as dramatic reform of land tenure and land distribution are ultimately necessary. But within the framework of the possible, the program in Gros Morne took the message on the road.
In recent years a full-time organizer began travelling through the eight departments adjacent to Gros Morne. With the support of parish priests and the Caritas network of 34 parish churches around Gros Morne, the program has been able to grow. Agricultural training takes place through the area now, not just in the formation center at Gros Morne. Community groups in the network receive seedlings for planting: satellite nurseries have been established to bring the seedlings closer to where they will be planted, and new demonstration projects are being developed.
The next phase of the project is coordination nationally with other reforestation, agriculture and ecological programs. Efforts several years ago to launch a national initiative on the environment, built on the cooperation of Haitian grassroots organizations, stalled as the result of the earthquake in January of 2010 and the demands of reconstruction. What the earthquake did highlight was how severe the crisis in rural Haiti was and that long term sustainable solutions for the entire country require a reformation of the agricultural sector. Of course, people in the U.S. and elsewhere have a role to play here. It is the agricultural policies of the U.S. and EU that have driven so many countries into situations similar to Haiti’s. Former President Clinton was forced to admit as much in Haiti after earthquake when he apologized for pushing policies on Haiti that had benefitted “Arkansas rice farmers” while destroying domestic rice production in Haiti.
The program at the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center continues to inspire us. Every step along the way the people in the community and the leaders of the program have sought to find solutions to problems that work in the local context. And they are succeeding.