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Growing a vision for self-sufficiency in Haiti Add to ...

Atop the winding rock roads that separate this isolated mountain community from the urban hodgepodge that is Jacmel, the main hope for redevelopment isn’t aid money or donated tents or rice.

It’s dirt.

The fertile, clay-like soil that gives a reddish tint to the rugged rural landscape here has long been the biggest underused asset in the area, an off-the-grid village of 30,000 where kids grow up dreaming of the day they can leave for some place more modern. To watch television here, townsfolk are accustomed to hauling a generator and full-sized TV up the hill that bears the community antenna, a single skyward prong tied to a bamboo pole.

Fed up with the community’s impoverishment and willingness to rely on disaster-related aid, a small group of friends have begun experimenting with food science in hopes of bringing stability and self-sufficiency to the village.

“Each disaster, there is a lot of food coming. The peasants are not working any more – they are just waiting for aid,” said Dominique Romuald, lead organizer of the loose co-operative of peasants working to develop the mountain community northwest of Jacmel called La Montagne. “We want to stop that. We don’t want to count on foreign organizations. We want people to work again.”

In espousing that proactive philosophy and striving independently to spread it to all 30,000 inhabitants of their town, the OPADEL co-op has caught the attention of local politicians, who view them as a rare, homegrown example of what the way forward could look like for rural Haitians tired of holding out their hands for help.

OPADEL hopes the spark for that shift can come from the patch of reddish soil that serves as the co-op’s tiny, outdoor nursery. There, an agronomist and several apprentices labour daily over a series of inventive grafting experiments aimed to boost the production of native fruit trees, and thus the market value of their yield.

So far they’ve managed to create a hybrid mango tree that produces fruit three times as large as the native version (and which sells at market for three times the price). They’ve also learned how to successfully marry the stalks of hardy sour orange trees (fruit from which is too sour to eat) with that of the coveted tangerine. Doing so markedly inflates the value of the original tree – a harvest of sour oranges fetches only about 150 HTG ($3.75 U.S.) at market; when the tree produces tangerines, one harvest can bring a farmer 5,000 HTG ($125 U.S.), a figure equivalent to the average annual income of a peasant in La Montagne, Mr. Romuald said.

“If a peasant has 10 tangerine trees, he is a rich man,” he said, smiling.

This is one well-known reality that Mr. Romuald does not have to explain to the farmers he and other members of OPADEL tour through their agricultural experiments, many of which are literally rooted on the hillside property owned by his parents. Their goal, he said, is to slowly “teach them by the eyes” that adopting more innovative techniques – eschewing old mango trees for the new hybrids, for example – can have a marked impact on their livelihoods.

“Community development depends on this,” said Christian Léger, the group president.

Indeed, agriculture-dependent communities across Haiti have for years been suffering from lack of expertise and innovation, despite the fact that two-thirds of the country relies on agriculture for subsistence. In part, the suffering is due to the continuing use of inefficient farming techniques that have been passed down through generations, including planting fields on steep hillsides that wash away during heavy rains.

“Farmers have accepted the fact that they have high losses,” said Emmet Murphy, head of ACDI-VOCA, a Jacmel-based American development agency that runs agriculture-improvement programs in tough-to-reach rural areas.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said, adding: “Farmers could be more efficient than they are currently.”

In recent years, though, there has been scant government investment in improving agricultural practices, and most mainstream development organizations have shied away from working in mountain regions, which are usually cut off from urban centres by rivers without bridges and impassable roads.

The earthquake only made conditions in those communities more precarious despite of the fact many rural regions experienced less destruction. It was the damage caused elsewhere that prompted loads of displaced people to decamp to the countryside (the region recorded a 10-per-cent population bump), putting pressure on rural households where means were already tight.

For OPADEL, the earthquake only served to reinforce the importance of working toward their vision in La Montagne. It also, paradoxically, brought them some good fortune: a link, via pleased city officials, with Planète Urgence, a small NGO from France that arrived in Jacmel with hopes of finding a small, self-sustaining local organization in need of help to expedite their work.

“We don’t want to give food,” said Philippe Petit, the NGO’s single representative in Haiti. “We just want to help them improve their ways of living.”

Thus, a partnership with OPADEL was born. Since the two groups linked up in May, the size of the nursery in La Montagne has doubled and plans are under way to build a community centre that will ultimately house a fruit-production facility, beds for visiting agronomists and a seed warehouse, among other things.

Over made-from-scratch hot cocoa one recent day, Mr. Petit listened as his OPADEL colleagues dreamed aloud about the day their agriculture revolution comes into full fruition – and the resulting status change that making La Montagne into a local food mecca might bring.

“We will not go to Jacmel to sell,” Mr. Léger said, smiling. “People will come from Jacmel to buy bananas at our price.”

Follow on Twitter: @jessleeder


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