“Yon sèl dwèt pa manje kalalou,” says Christroi Petit-homme, a member of a peasant farmer organization. You can’t eat gumbo with one finger. Peasant groups throughout rural Haiti form the fingers of the hand, reaching out with humanitarian aid for those left bereft after the earthquake.
US Ambassador Ken Merten said at a February 12 State Department briefing, “In terms of humanitarian aid delivery, frankly, it’s working really well, and I believe that this will be something that people will be able to look back on in the future as a model for how we’ve been able to sort ourselves out as donors on the ground and responding to an earthquake.” Judging from hundreds of interviews, that impression is not shared by survivors of the earthquake. Most claim they have received no goods or services from the Haitian or US governments, while only a few report having received donations of food and water from other sources such as the UN. Homeless people greatly outnumber the supply of tents. Free medical care, now widely available through burgeoning community clinics, is the single accessible service.
Into the humanitarian vacuum have stepped everyday citizens, especially peasant organizations in areas now flooded with thousands of survivors. They are acting in a long national tradition of solidarity.
Some of the immigrants came to flee the dangerous and squalid refugee camps, while others spent one too many sleepless nights standing up during the rains which have arrived in Port-au-Prince. Some came to the countryside to return to their families, while others left the decimated capital on the first bus they could find. The migration pattern is a sharp reversal of the decades-long rural-to-urban flight.
Christroi lives in the village community of Piatte in the Artibonite region, three bus rides and a motorcycle ride away from Port-au-Prince. He is part of the countrywide Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (literally, Heads Together Little Haitian Peasants). In Piatte, four days after the earthquake, Tèt Kole, the local church, and the general population convened to decide their collective response to the crisis. Joseph Dor, another member of Tèt Kole, explains the strategies they adopted: taking people into their homes; bringing food to other homes that are housing internally displaced peoples, and bringing the fruits of their fields, like bananas and peas, to camps in Port-au-Prince.
Joseph has sent food to 13 people “in difficulty” in the city: bananas, coconuts and breadfruit from his garden, plus water that he bought. He admits it has been hard because he is already supporting his wife and four children, but says, “It’s my contribution.”
In one afternoon meeting of the local Tèt Kole group under a mango tree, 12 of the 42 members present said they were hosting displaced people. Isaac Simellon, for example, took in seven orphans after his brother died in the earthquake. This hospitality is no simple matter, since the hosts are themselves desperately poor. Thirty-one of the 42 said they don’t even have houses, since the structures – most of them made of woven sticks smeared with mud and topped with dried cane stalks or banana leaves – either completely collapsed in the 7.3 quake or are too badly damaged to inhabit. Fifteen said they have added to their household their children who had been going to school in Port-au-Prince, since all schools there except a very few private ones are now closed.
Sylvain Pierre, one of Tèt Kole’s national coordinators, says, “Solidarity is a principle of our group. When there were massacres [against Tèt Kole members] in Jean-Rabel and Piatte, when there were arrests, when there is work to be done, there is always solidarity. When we need political pressure, people give it. When we need food, people bring it. Some bring wood, some bring water. Those who have money, they give money. Those who only have a little change put it into a sack as a collection for other members.”
This approach to humanitarian aid takes on new dimensions in the Central Plateau, to which a careful census done in numerous rural communes suggests that 150,000 people have just relocated. The members of the local Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP) took up a collection of $519.60, and the organization’s directorate contributed another $128. With that, MPP took 60 refugees into their guest house, giving not only lodging but also shoes, clothes and medical and dental care; three meals a day; Internet access, and entertainment such as movies and excursions. MPP has enrolled three of the children back into school. They even slaughtered two of their cows so they could bring meat to patients at the nearby Partners in Health hospital.
Christianne Adrien, a street vendor, and her husband Ilson, a farmer, are among many MPP members who have taken in guests. In their case, the guests are 18 members of the extended family, bringing the number of those in the household to 27. “If it were for money, we would never have done it,” Christianne says. “We did it because we wanted them to have a life. If God saved the life of some people from a catastrophe of that size, it’s so that we can protect the life of others. People have to live; you have to receive them.
“It’s been a big knife thrust for us to find food for them all. But since we’re peasants, what we have we share so they can live, too. At first we bought a little sack of rice and three cans of beans. I milled ten cans of corn that we had grown. Each morning Ilson went to the fields and came back with bananas and vegetables. There came a day when I realized I couldn’t go on. All my funds were depleted and the interest payments on my micro-loan were at risk. The MPP office gave me some money so I could buy more food.”
But MPP’s resources are quickly running out, too. MPP Director Chavannes Jean-Baptiste says, “We haven’t gotten any financial support for this. We’re happy to help now, but what’s going to happen in six months? It would be good if the people we’re helping could start supporting themselves through agricultural production, if the state would turn over some land to them. Otherwise we’re going to be sucked dry.”
The cost to peasant farmers will soon be even higher, and will be borne by the whole nation, because the humanitarian aid providers have been forced to repurpose the seeds they saved for the March planting season – the main season of the year – to feed their guests. In the absence of seeds to plant, peasant associations are warning of an impending food crisis worse than the one which is already gripping Haiti.
Besides hunger, another risk is a nation that remains dependent on hand-outs of food aid, thus further undermining agricultural production and food sovereignty. Chavannes says, “While we accept that food aid is useful now because there’s no other option for all these people, it can be fatal to agriculture. We say that parallel to food aid, there has to be an effort to help peasants plant.”
To date, none of the peasant organizations interviewed has gotten support for their disaster response. Christianne Adrien, the woman providing hospitality to 18 internally displaced people, says, “If there are good Samaritans out there with resources or contacts, they might want to think of these people, especially in terms of food and health care and schools for children who lost their schools.”
Despite the tragic cause of the migration and the associated risks, the exodus from the city where people lived precariously in squalid, overcrowded conditions and worked in the sweatshop sector or informal economy offers opportunities for Haiti’s future. Peasant groups are now organizing to try to rebuild Haiti in more sustainable, livable and environmental ways, based on an expanded agricultural sector and on food sovereignty. Stay tuned for more information.
The reporting and distribution of these articles are being done largely through volunteer labor and donations of technical and other support. Much appreciation goes to Josette and Fritz Perard, Jacques Bartoli and others in Haiti for their hospitality, and to Roberto (Bear) Guerra for his photographs. In the US, Rachel Wallis, Jonathan Schwartz, Robert Naiman, Laurie Emrich and Peace Development Fund have provided essential assistance. Chapo ba pou nou tout. (Hats off to you all.)