Life saving seeds and tools reached Haitian farmers at critical juncture; Haitian rural partner organizations saved lives, boosted by nation-wide seed and tool program. Solidarity resources were key.
By Stephen Bartlett of Agricultural Missions. He was accompanied in a tour of rural Haitian organizations Feb 28-March 4 by the Director of the Hunger Program of the Presbyterian Church USA, Ruth Farrell.
Standing up to testify in rural Haitian hamlets with names like Bayonnais, la Victoire, Acul du Nord, Ennery, Renquitte, Milot, Colladere, Papay, peasant after peasant stood to speak, driving home the point far better than any polished spreadsheet could have. (We already had the spread sheets in hand, that showed 86 tons of locally purchased seed distributed along with 15,000 machetes and hoes among thousands of farmer families in 10 provinces of Haiti!) The seeds and tools program was exactly what was needed in their lives in the months following the catastrophic earthquake. Peasants of every age, both women and men, proudly expressed their gratitude for empowering them to shoulder their responsibilities and provide relief to the rural hungry and to the large number of displaced persons who they now feed and house. (Note: a large proportion of those displaced from Port-au-Prince have chosen to remain in the countryside, testimony perhaps to the success of the support for these vital programs.) In fact, for most, the peas, beans, corn, rice, peanuts, and sorghum seeds and the extra tools were all that stood between their loved ones, and a grinding hunger and mortifying defeat.
The seeds allowed them to act, in the face of great need and suffering. It allowed them to shoulder their responsibilities to produce and nourish, and not to succumb to the overwhelming circumstances with despair, despite an extremely challenging context. In addition, the seed and tool program was a stimulus to movement building and increased unity, as FONDAMA member organizations reached out at local and regional levels to include community organizations of all kinds, women´s groups, credit cooperatives, un-affiliated farmers groups, even considered ´rivals´ among the beneficiaries of the seed and tool purchases. The main criteria for disbursement of seeds and tools was that recipients be farmers with land access who were feeding victims of the earthquake of January 12, 2010.
Funding for the purchase of local Haitian seeds and tools and for training tinsmiths to produce metallic silos for community seed banks as part of a national strategic plan was provided by Agricultural Missions, the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP), and the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program. The PHP and Ag Missions Haiti partner FONDAMA administered the purchase and distribution of the seeds and tools across 10 departments of Haiti, and undertook the training of 60 tinsmiths for production of silos for community seedbanks (100 silos have been produced thus far.).
Arriving in a cloud of dry-season dust in backcountry Artibonite, Leogane, the North or Central Plateau, without fail groups of up to 65 rural individuals were gathered to welcome our delegation of two, and to express their gratitude for not forgetting them in their supreme moment of need. They also took the opportunity to ask for continued accompaniment as they move to creating or consolidating community seed banks, and to expand further their staple food production. The depletion of their seed stocks and any saved cash that resulted from the arrival of multitudes of displaced victims of devastated Port-au-Prince, put the Haitian farmers in a double bind. Already living on the margins economically, the new reality for the Haitian peasantry of having to feed and shelter more than half a million destitute and shell-shocked persons threatened to overwhelm them.
A peasant by the name of Christophe from the well-watered north put it this way. “When the quake destroyed Port-au-Prince in 90 seconds of horror last January, some 18,000 victims flooded the communities surrounding Acul du Nord/St. Michel. ¨Many of us had to do search and rescue trips to the capital, searching, sometimes, in vain, for our loved ones and their neighbors. Everyone in Haiti was touched. As so many displaced relatives and even unknown persons flooded our communities, we had to dig deep, literally to the bottom of the barrel, to try to feed and shelter them all. Our hospitals were overflowing, our churches converted into shelters, our humble houses filled to overflowing. The January and February planting season passed us by. April-May when it was time to plant again, we were barely back on our feed and we hadn´t a single seed on hand to sow, or money to buy seed. That is when 20 pounds of black bean seed, 12 pounds of corn, 20 pounds of peanut seed and a new hoe and machete came to us, thanks to your organizations. We couldn´t have gotten that seed any other way. We were broke. We want to thank you for helping make that happen, for my family and for so many other families. It wasn´t as much as we could have planted, but it made a crop! We hope you will continue to keep Haitian farmers in your hearts and minds. Many others still need seeds and tools. And we need grain silos so our organizations will never be without planting seed again.¨
Unwittingly, in what was aimed to be a ¨well-timed¨ gesture in terms of international public relations, an infamous transnational corporatiion provided a memorable, menacing and TRULY TIMELY object lesson to Haitian farmers (and to the world). The gesture of Monsanto corporation threatened the seed autonomy still remaining among rural communities in Haiti, threatening what remained of Haitian´s well-adapted homegrown crop seeds. On May 13 Monsanto corporation announced that it was entering the Haitian market for the first time, in the form of a ¨gift¨to the Haitian people, of 460 tons of imported hybrid seed, at the explicit invitation of USAID, and its local WINNER organization run by a former Duvalierist, that would be facilitating distribution. Organized Haitian farmers were indignant and outraged. Leaders of FONDAMA member organizations and Via Campesina Haiti declared this a mortal¨and ¨poisoned¨gift. In fact, most of the seeds were coated with a pesticide banned in the U.S., despite the practice of hand-sowing of seed among Haitian subsistence farmers. And while Monsanto claimed the seeds were not transgenics (GMOs), they were hybrids, which cannot be replanted after the first harvest, thus setting up a dependency on the company once local seed stocks have expired.
The farmer organization known as the MPP (Mouvement Paysan de Papay) with rural allies and members of Via Campesina Haiti called for a national march on June 4 to protest this aggressive maneuver by Monsanto, known to every member worldwide of Via Campesina as a predatory enemy of family farmers and peasants. Within weeks, a national march was organized and involved over 15,000 peasants who marched from Papay to Hinche in Central Plateau department (province). 200 representatives of peasant organizations from all across Haiti traveled to remote Papay, as did many international solidarity folk. Our own Agricultural Missions sent retired US farmer Sam Smith to bear witness. We also provided $3,000 in funds for the materials purchased to enliven the protest, straw hats, banners, placards, etc...The bulk of the marchers arrived on foot and on motorcycles and mules, from a radius of several hours walking distance from Papay.
A national Haitian television channel (channel 11) as well as a phalanx of journalists, including an Al-Jazeera reporter stationed in Port-au-Prince, turned up in rural Papay. News of the vibrant mass march and the symbolic burning of a sack full of the eerily pinkish-coated seeds circulated the planet, and penetrated into the hearts and minds of Haitian farmers, for whom after the catastrophe, a lack of native seed could have resulted in their literally becoming ¨undone.¨ Seeds, people realized with new fervor, were strategic. Local control of seeds was essential. The ancestral DNA in staple crop seeds represented nothing less than freedom from subjugation and eventual bankruptcy and failure as farmers.
Haitian farmers´enthusiasm and commitment to the seed program launched by the coalition called FONDAMA (Hand in Hand Foundation) surprised even their optimistic leaders. Many had questioned whether farmer recipients of seed would return seeds from their subsequent harvests, to replenish the stocks so that others in need could also get high quality local seed. Their doubts were proven wrong by the positive response, and tons and tons of harvested seeds were returned from the first crops to be distributed again, or stored until the next rainy season, and some of the crops are still drying in the fields up north. Now the work of the newly-trained tinsmiths becomes critical, to produce the metallic silos where seed can be safely and securely stored, protected from insects and rats, sealed from above by layers of neem leaves and wild chilis, or mixed with wood ash. Farmers are people of hope at each new planting season, and Haitian farmers hopes to produce their way out of their poverty is rising like a tide.
Those of us who helped get the word out to donors in the U.S. and Canada-- and those donors included many individuals as well as church program agencies and solidarity NGOs-- should be proud of providing the kind of support that empowers and leads to long-term well-being and sustainability in the long uphill climb of the Haitian peasantry to restore and revitalize Haitian agriculture. We who got to tour the rural communities shouldering their burdens with courage, have no doubt whatsoever that Haiti can feed itself, if given half a chance and an equitable share of resources for reconstruction. We aim to continue to build the kind of international solidarity that must fill the gap left by the failure, corruption and dependency of the government of Haiti and of the international governments under the UN and MINUSTAH who so far have done little or nothing to allow for that to change. Haiti is faced by a choice between solidarity or calamity! What we ask of everyone who reads this: be part of blessed solidarity!!