“Many people rely on their crops so when a hurricane comes it can take that away. If you lose your crops, you have lost everything,” said Jean Sylvio Bernard, a World Concern supported farmer in southern Haiti.
His words have been ringing in my head ever since our conversation in late June.
I have been thinking about what exactly to share from our visit with Jean Sylvio and the other two farmers Martha and I met. The more time I spend in Haiti and the more people I meet, the more serious I take my role as communicator and story-teller. It can be intimidating to be the one responsible for sharing about this place and its’ people. I am realizing this is no small task and requires much thought and genuine reflection. Basically I want to get the story ‘right.’ The people of Haiti deserve it.
With that said, what I have decided to share is not as much about these farmers’ lack of wealth but about their vulnerability. Poverty is much more complex than we would like to admit. It is convenient to think of poverty in strictly economic terms but often times there is something deeper than simply a lack of money. After our chat with Jean Sylvio and the others, their vulnerability is what stood out the most, not their financial situation.
In addition to meeting Jean Sylvio, we also had the opportunity to meet his brother Estimé Bernard and a neighbor named Lina Fidele. All three are middle aged and have been farming in the area for 20 years. They each are husbands and fathers, and all but Lina have grandchildren. These men are considered ‘small’ farmers in Haiti, meaning they have a very small amount of land to work. It depends on the season but common crops include tomatoes, beans, rice, okra, and corn. Lots of corn.
Estimé, Jean Sylvio and Lina (left to right) strike a pose for us at World Concern’s training center.
It should also be said that each of these men were familiar with World Concern long before the current project they are involved with. Jean Sylvio had previously participated in an animal raising project and Estimé received a cow at some point. This highlights how long World Concern has been working in these communities.
Pierre Duclona, World Concern’s regional coordinator for southern Haiti told me, “Although projects change, we try and work with the same people because relationships are important and we want to see long term change in people’s lives.”
We met the men at the World Concern agricultural training center near Charlette, a short drive outside of Les Cayes (the big town in southern Haiti and home to World Concern’s regional office). I say ‘center’ because that is the easiest way to describe it; although it is basically a farm that has been turned into an outdoor classroom of sorts. World Concern leases around 4 acres of land and uses it to conduct training’s for area farmers on a variety of topics—land conservation, tree grafting, reusing seeds, and preparing land for planting. Here is a simple video of the land World Concern leases and uses to train farmers. Currently papaya, peppers, watermelon, squash, and eggplant are growing here.
“We received corn seeds and were trained on how to best plant,” shared Lina. “We also learned about grafting and I’ve practiced that. I have grafted mango and it is successful so far.”
Estimé also benefited from the tree grafting training. “The grafting is something new. Now I have a grafted mango tree at home growing,” he said. “Grafting is important because it improves the quality of the mango.”
Estimé proudly tells us about his newly grafted mango tree. A branch from a mango tree that is healthy and produces a variety quickly is connected to a normal variety. The result is a mango tree that produces fruit quickly and at a high quality.
A technician is employed by World Concern to conduct the trainings and manage the farm. The food that is grown here is sold and the money used to cover some program costs. This is one way that World Concern is attempting to incorporate sustainability into its’ programs.
This support and training for farmers in southern Haiti is crucial because of the challenges they face.
Like most farmers in southern Haiti the men we met have no irrigation and rely only on rainfall which is becoming more and more unpredictable due to climate change. Lack of access to high quality seeds and knowledge of how to reuse seeds year after year is another challenge. Insects can be devastating for crops. The majority of farmers lack the resources to purchase pesticides to kill off the pesky creatures. Therefore, crops in Haiti are almost entirely ‘organic’ by default (a plus I suppose).
Also, without proper mechanization these farmers are often forced to work their land by hand which is slow, tedious and less efficient. World Concern staff in the south estimated that 80-90% of farmers in Haiti still farm manually. And inefficiency means that less land is plowed and prepared for planting which effects the amount of food produced and therefore the income of the farmer.
“I mostly only eat what I harvest because often it is not enough to sell,” commented Lina.
Lina reaches for a papaya at the training center as he explains the growing process. These men are sharp and know the land well.
And it doesn’t end there. Possibly the biggest threat these farmers face is to severe weather; namely hurricanes. In 2012 two hurricanes, Isaac and Sandy, wreaked havoc on farmers across Haiti including in the south. Following Sandy approximately 70% of all crops in the country were destroyed.
“Almost every farmer was impacted at that time. Everyone has lost some of their crop which means you and your children may become hungry,” said Estimé.
“The hurricane destroyed so much. I lost much of my corn because the water was so high. The corn became spoiled,” piped in Lina. “Every year [italics my own] the hurricanes come and often your crops will be destroyed.”
“This has repercussion on kids’ education too because when you have no crops you have no money and cannot pay school fees,” explained Jean Sylvio.
One of our light moments with Jean Sylvio. Perhaps the biggest smile in all of southern Haiti right here.
Jean Sylvio’s words that I shared at the beginning of this post summarize what all this means best; “If you have lost your crops you have lost everything.”
Aside from family and friends, there is no safety net in Haiti. No crop insurance, no subsidies and limited alternative employment opportunities (especially outside heavily centralized Port-au-Prince).
They are vulnerable.
These men are fighting an uphill battle. It is both equally frustrating and hopeful to know that it doesn’t have to be this way.
There is a river near Charlotte that will perhaps one day provide irrigation for these farmers if resources become available and if there is willingness on the part of the community to maintain and manage it (I think there would be).
Trainings given by World Concern to Jean Sylvio, Estimé and Lina helped them understand how to reuse seeds from year to year instead of buying new ones each season.
“Now I know how to conserve the seeds and how to protect the seed and cover it, and how to take care of the seed,” stated a confident Estimé.
Estimé shows off a fruit he is growing called kenèp in Haitian Creole or quenêpe in French. Kenèp is a rare tropical fruit that grows all over Haiti. It is usually sweet and a bit sour at the end.
A World Concern tractor is shared among area farmers, allowing them to plow faster and more efficiently. This is especially helpful and welcomed by the farmers we spoke with. If there is some money, a farmer may rent oxen to help plow but this is not always possible.
“If you use oxen it will take four days to plow the land but with the tractor it may only take one day,” shared Lina.
“The tractor service is good but more tractors are needed to satisfy the needs of farmers in the area,” added Jean Sylvio. “This area has fertile land and people are busy working but we need resources.”
Jean Sylvio letting us know all about peppers at the training center.
Food insecurity is a very real concern right now in rural Haiti due to a disastrous hurricane season in 2012. The UN estimates that 1.5 million people are not able to access enough food.
For Jean Sylvio, Estimé and Lina there are always uncertainties however they are hopeful for a good harvest this summer thanks to support from World Concern and recent rain.
“I want to thank World Concern for the work it is doing. If other organizations helped farmers like World Concern does, then they can move forward,” said Estimé as we were finishing our visit.
I wish I could say that these men and their families are no longer vulnerable, but they are. Their situation cannot be improved overnight. However I can say that World Concern is working diligently to strengthen and equip them. This is encouraging. World Concern has been serving farmers in Haiti for over 15 years and is committed to doing so for many more to come.