Jon McGoran (right) with MPP Director, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste.
This post was written by Jon McGoran, a participant on the 2015 Main Line delegation to Haiti.
Halfway through our one-week visit to Haiti with the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) and Mouvement Payizan Papay (MPP), I’ve already encountered so many compelling images, people, and experiences that I’ll be processing them for months, and remembering them for a lifetime. Much of the visit has been marked by stark contrasts: The grinding poverty and the natural beauty. The isolation of being a stranger in a strange land and the warmth and friendliness of the people we have met. Even the animal life we have encountered — on our first morning working at the MPP center, we stumbled upon a tarantula and a seven-inch centipede (which gave some in our group quite a shock) and then found that one of the goats had given birth the night before. Among other things I’ve learned here: little baby goats are incredibly cute.
Other contrasts were not so obvious, but may be more compelling. Haiti is a land with many problems and not an abundance of resources to fix them. In the weeks leading up to this trip, there was plenty of reading and discussion about Haiti and its history. (Part of the reason I came here was for a book I am working on, so I had already been doing plenty of research.) These past few months have been eye-opening, learning of Haiti’s history and the many injustices that have been inflicted on it from without — and sometimes from within.
One word common to many of these accounts is ‘hopeless,’ and in just a few days I’ve seen much that would explain why some would say that. But I’ve also seen that hope is something that Haiti has in abundance.
The 2010 earthquake was a tragedy of a magnitude that could easily have erased all hope. Five years later, traveling through Port au Prince, plenty of damage is still visible, still unrepaired. But traveling with others who have been here several times since then, it is incredibly heartening to witness their observations, second hand, about which buildings and infrastructure have been repaired or rebuilt, which improvements are new since a year ago or two. There is much work still to do, but clearly, progress has been made.
Less visible but more devastating than Haiti’s physical damage was the damage to its people — those who perished or were injured, and those who survived and were left to deal with the trauma and destruction.
But with MPP, there is hope for these survivors as well. MPP is helping Haitians build healthy and fulfilling lives through sustainable small-scale agriculture, through training and education and material support, and also by building a series of eco-villages, where Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake can live those fulfilling lives, away from the terrible conditions of Port au Prince.
MPP is cause for inspiration in and of itself. Since its founding with a handful of members over forty years ago by Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the organization has grown to 60,000 members. The eco-villages are even more cause for hope. At the recently-built school that serves all six villages, we had a joyous visit with the students and parents. An impromptu musical exchange broke out, with members of our delegation and small groups of school children trading off performances of some favorite songs. We also visited several of the villages, including village four, which was already boasting mature trees and robust individual and communal agricultural operations. Perhaps the most moving moment for me was when we visited village six, the newest one, only four or five months old. Before we made natural insecticide together, pounding garlic and neem leaves, and grating sour orange peel and onions, the villagers each introduced themselves. The last to do so was a man who quietly explained that he had been in the village for one month. He was from Port au Prince. He had lost his wife and his two daughters in the earthquake, and since that time he’d been homeless and foraging for food. I was stunned, unable to imagine what his life had been like and how he had managed to continue it. I felt an overwhelming sense of sorrow and tragedy, of hopelessness. But in his eyes I saw hope. After a pause, he added, “Thanks to Chavannes and MPP, now I have a home.”
Bio: JON McGORAN has been writing about food and sustainability for over twenty years, as communication director at Weavers Way Co-op and as editor in chief at Grid magazine. He is also the author of the ecological thrillers Drift and Deadout, as well as their forthcoming sequel, which will be set in part in Haiti.
When I tell people I’ve been to Haiti, their voices often shift to a register of sadness and pity. They say, “Oh, it’s so sad, the situation there.” They say, “Is there really any good that can be done?” This always disorients me. I know the people of Haiti face huge challenges, but overwhelmingly my experience of the country and its people is one of hope, of strength, of transformation.
Three years ago, fellow UUSC-UUA service-learning participants and I worked with the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) to lay the foundation of the first house of the first eco-village, a joint project of UUSC and MPP, in the country’s rural Central Plateau. When I returned this past May on a journey with the UU College of Social Justice, I was heartened by the progress and was fired up once again by the fierce commitment to justice of the social movement these villages are rooted in.
The most tangible signs of progress in the eco-villages are physical: sturdy homes, flourishing gardens, growing tree nurseries, solar power setups, community gathering spaces. Where there was once just a lone house foundation, there are now complete villages — MPP was nearing completion of the sixth eco-village in May as we helped sift sand, move rocks, and hand lumber to skilled roofers.
Each village is home to 10 families who have started new lives as small farmers after being displaced from Port-au-Prince by the 2010 earthquake. With six villages — two made possible by UUSC and the other four funded by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance — in place, 60 families have shelter and the means to feed themselves and generate sustainable livelihoods.
One of the most exciting things about this project is that it establishes a successful holistic model that can be replicated throughout the countryside. And it’s a model that puts power squarely in the hands of the peasants — a word that MPP members have reclaimed for themselves as small rural farmers. As Philfrant St. Naré, manager of MPP’s community animators (MPP’s version of community organizers), told us, “We want peasants to have control over what they produce. We want to build a government that takes care of peasants and everyone else, too. We want to build a Haiti that is self-sufficient.”
SOVEREIGNTY AND SUSTAINABILITY
Sovereignty and environmental sustainability are bedrock principles embedded in everything that MPP does — and it starts with food. “I can spend a week in the same clothes, but I can’t go a week without food,” says Paul Muler, the MPP agronomist and community animator who was our main host this past trip. That is why MPP is, at its core, a collection of farming cooperatives called gwoupman, all of which receive support and training from MPP agronomists. MPP’s approach is “agriculture that respects the earth, the air, and the people,” as Muler says, and they use organic, sustainable farming methods.
After the 2010 earthquake, along with the influx of international assistance came the advice and directives for recovery. When UUSC began working with MPP in 2010, it approached the grassroots group as an eye-to-eye partner. As St. Naré, who has worked with MPP for 25 years, said to us, “NGOs need to ask what we need and not tell us what we need. Instead of giving us food, help us produce our own food.” Aware of the importance of Haitians leading the recovery in ways that support their own vision, UUSC asked questions, listened to the answers, and helped MPP hone plans for how they would like to move forward and support families in the wake of the earthquake — and that’s how the first eco-village was born.
The eco-villages are about more than farming and food, though; they are about community connections and power, about social change, about justice. This was driven home to me over and over again as we spoke with MPP members. MPP traces the connections between the many forms of oppression experienced in Haiti.
“You can’t be free if the person next to you isn’t free,” Muler reminded us. MPP was founded more than 40 years ago — it now counts a nationwide membership of more than 60,000 — and has been living this concept out each step along the way. As they recognize the ways that a history of slavery, occupation, and international interference has disempowered their nation, they recognize the ways that ruling elites in Port-au-Prince have disenfranchised the peasants in the countryside.
MPP also recognizes the ways that women have been oppressed, and empowering women is integral to the changes MPP is working to make reality. “To fight the exploitation that men and women experience, we must first fight men’s domination of women,” St. Naré told us. Article 13 of MPP’s bylaws prioritizes equality between men and women.
MPP’s commitment to gender equity shows up in so many ways: their zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence among their members, their prioritization of education for girls and adult literacy for women, and their understanding of the link between education and economic empowerment for a brighter future for girls and women. Women serve in a variety of MPP roles, from doctors to agronomists to the director of their cooperative bank.
Giselaine Saint Fleur, an animator and the coordinator of MPP’s 2,000 women’s gwoupman, shared: “My wish for all women is that we be able to take our destiny in our own hands.” The same could be said about MPP’s wish for all peasants, for all Haitians.
POWER, STRENGTH, AND RESILIENCE
So when people say to me, “Oh, it’s so sad, the situation there,” I say: “The challenges that Haiti faces are big and hard and sad — but to leave it at that ignores the strength of Haitians who are actively surviving, actively creating positive change, actively making progress.”
When people say to me, “Is there really any good that can be done?” I say: “Absolutely. There is so much good that already is being done — and is being led by the Haitian people. And we have an important role to play in supporting their vision and moving it forward.”
Then I continue: I tell them about MPP, about Muler, about St. Naré, about Saint Fleur. I tell them about Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the founder of MPP. I tell them about the song, “Ann Makonnen Fos Nou” (“Let’s Intertwine Our Strengths Together”), that Muler taught us during this last trip. I tell them about the green peppers growing in container gardens and the fresh mangoes. I tell them about the soil I mixed according to the agronomist’s directions (three parts soil, two parts manure, one part sand) and poured into small bags to grow tree saplings; I handed them off to Cassandra, a resident of the second village who we worked alongside at the on-site tree nursery there. I tell them about power, strength, and resilience — of the people I met, of the communities I worked in, of the movement I witnessed.
While they say you can’t go home again, that’s only partly true as most of us know. So, my second trip to visit the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) and its eco-village project in the Central Plateau brought with it the familiar and of course, the new, the different, the memorable — and the irreplaceable.
Our group mostly planted trees in the heat of the morning and managed to surround the fifth eco-village with a potential canopy. Seeing how much things had grown in the first eco-village in only one year, I know our little saplings will provide shade next year where there was only sun last week.
We were hot, sweaty, and satisfied. And Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the leader and founder of MPP, told us that our grubby, earthy labors sent an important message to the peasant community. They could visibly see that in spite of our affluence, and frankly our color, we could provide manual labor, in some pretty demanding circumstances — just the way the peasants have to work. Seeing our commitment to their future at such a basic level affirms their goals. And it removes some stigmas regarding our social class — no one is too good to get dirty.
Those words from Chavannes opened my eyes to the value of our partnership. It goes so far beyond the financial support. That was the new. The sweat and the dirt — they were the familiar.
The following post was written by Kara Smith, UUSC’s associate for grassroots mobilization.
UUSC is all geared up to host a dedicated group of UU College of Social Justice Haiti program alumni in Washington, D.C., for an upcoming lobby day! April 6–8 is going to be an exciting three days full of training, conversation, and legislative advocacy.
As UUSC’s associate for grassroots mobilization, I’m thrilled to report that 25 service-learning trip alumni and community members from nine states and the District of Columbia will be convening on Capitol Hill to speak up for a just recovery in Haiti. They will team up with two representatives from the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP): Mulaire Michel, an agronomist, and Philefrant St. Nare, a leader of popular education.
Plus they’ll be joined by UUSC Haiti Program Manager Wendy Flick, who will have just returned from MPP’s 40th anniversary celebration; Evan Seitz, UUCSJ’s senior associate for service-learning programs; and Shelley Moskowitz, UUSC’s manager of public policy and mobilization. And I’ll be there, too!
Together, we will advocate on behalf of the men, women, and children who are slowly rebuilding their lives after the most devastating natural disaster in Haitian history. We will urge our policy makers to be accountable and transparent about the progress that is or is not being made in the reconstruction process.
The goals for the weekend include the following:
Share firsthand experience of Haiti with our legislators
Support the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act, which asks for accountability and transparency about how relief funding is being spent in Haiti
Ensure the inclusion of Haitian civil society in the recovery efforts as well as special protections for vulnerable populations
Keep the recovery in Haiti on the radar of our policy makers
The alumni’s experience, dedication, and commitment are valuable resources. They have witnessed the resilience and innovation of the Haiti people firsthand and have been part of creating a sustainable recovery by working on the ground to build the first eco-village with MPP. And they will be translating that experience into further effective action as we meet with members of Congress.
Stay tuned for an update and more on how you too can help spread this message!
Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, founder and executive director of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), a UUSC partner in Haiti, has a favorite saying: “Men anpil chay pa lou” (in English: “Many hands make the burden light”). From its humble but determined beginnings in 1973 through its growth to an organization with more than 61,000 members throughout the country, MPP has been on a mission of social change. MPP strives to empower Haitian peasants through community organizing and education, protecting the environment, revitalizing organic agriculture, and increasing access to alternative energies — and this week (March 17–23), they celebrate 40 years of this essential work.
To mark the occasion, MPP is convening a congress of 1,000 member delegates from all over Haiti. The gathering’s theme, MPP: 40 Years Later — A Sovereign MPP within a Sovereign Haiti, highlights a goal they are continually striving for: sovereignty. The week will include a thorough review and update of organizational priorities, strategic planning for the next five years, and a march for national sovereignty on March 22. They expect at least 20,000 people to participate in the march.
The foundation of MPP’s work is a model of popular education, adapted from the work of Paulo Freire, that fosters individual and collective empowerment through community dialogue. MPP creates intentional collective working groups called gwoupman, comprised of approximately 15 members each, to take on projects such as sustainable cultivation of a piece of land, production of solar panels, or the raising of livestock. Over the years, MPP has trained over 1,000 community organizers (they call them “animators”) to work with the various groups throughout Haiti.
Jean-Baptiste reports that a new organizational priority likely to emerge from the discussions held during the congress will be adult literacy. MPP members are saying that illiteracy is a major factor that keeps them, especially the women and girls among them, on the margins of Haitian society. As in many countries in the Global South, illiteracy tends to be linked with gender and the right to water — girls are often denied education because their days are spent carrying water for their families. MPP has an ongoing water program to address access to clean water by constructing wells and cisterns that gather roof runoff.
The congress will also highlight the eco-village project, a joint venture of MPP and UUSC that has created a model of sustainable living for people displaced in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. UUSC has been heavily involved with this project from the start, funding two of six villages and, through the UU College of Social Justice, sending ten groups of service-learning volunteers to help construct the villages. Ten families moved into the first completed village in December 2011. After the completion of the sixth village in 2014, the cluster of villages will make up a community large enough to have a school and clinic. The model includes alternative technologies such as solar well pumps for potable water and irrigation, alternative charcoal created from agricultural waste products, and innovative agricultural techniques that are ripe for replication throughout the country.
Following the congress, representatives from MPP will travel to Washington, D.C., to join with several alumni of service-learning trips to educate members of the U.S. Congress about the realities on the ground in Haiti. They will share their experiences and knowledge about successful models of recovery such as the eco-village while emphasizing the importance of including the voices of Haitian civil society in the conversation about Haitian reconstruction.