Planting seeds of hope in Haiti / Farm program puts life back into the land

USA Today
August 5, 1994, Friday, Final Edition
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 6A
LENGTH: 1096 words
DATELINE: BASSIN BLEU, Haiti

Out of dry, baked fields, hardscrabble rocks and trickles of water optimistically called “rivers,” a little hope is sprouting in one of Haiti’s most desperate regions.

Old men are lugging stones to catch water runoff and stop the escape of topsoil. Bands of women sing in the fields and debate crop rotation. Children yank on weeds in anticipation of full bellies.

“God has given us a new kind of knowledge,” says Tyless Jacques-Louis, a 70s-something farmer stroking a few wispy strands of gray chin hair and squinting in the sun. “We will live.”

For three years almost no rain fell in northwest Haiti, one of the most isolated and poorest areas of the country. Coupled with past practices of deforestation and poor farming techniques, the land yielded nothing – and farmers took to eating their remaining seeds for survival.

Today, under a renewed effort at agricultural training by the humanitarian group CARE, the fields that produced only disappointment now are green and gold of a currency much appreciated: food, food and more food.

“I had a garden before, but never like this,” says Clare Henrique, 62. She once sowed a few vegetables and tobacco around her one-room house until the soil died.

Today she has eggplant, okra, Haitian spinach, cabbage – and dreams of more. “When you find food, you like it,” she said.

The CARE program has three levels: encouraging vegetable gardens for families to supplement their own meals; midsize plots farmed partially for family use and partially for market sales; and larger fields for full-fledged market commerce.

The program stresses agricultural cropping practices, soil conservation measures and tree management. Key to its success: using rocks, straw and other local materials to block soil and water loss. That increases soil moisture and creates productive oasis from once eroded areas.

The difference is immediately striking. In revitalized areas the corn stalks are higher, healthier and already showing ears; elsewhere the stalks are scraggly and tentative.

“It’s opened up the farms to other cash crops, like potatoes, because of the moisture and the nutrients,” says CARE’s Matt Anderson, who oversees the program.

The program’s goal is to reach 12,000 farmers in the northwest region. That would provide food and income for an estimated 72,000 impoverished rural inhabitants.

It is a program whose time had come years ago.

Malnutrition is 20% around here, and CARE figures that any region with at least 10% malnutrition is in a hunger crisis.

But the renewal of the land is a slow process – starting with convincing each farmer and homeowner one at a time.

“I saw it (the techniques) in a different way at first, and I said no,” Jacque-Louis said. “But then I saw they (other farmers) were getting something out of it, so that helped me see the useful it was.”

More crops also mean more income. Average annual income here is about $ 80, so “anything extra from cash crops is a significant increase,” Anderson said.

Among the most enthusiastic is Violet Paul. She insists on showing how far she plans to expand her crop area. “There will be beans there and more cabbage there,” says Paul, 40. “This is where the beets grow and where there will be carrots.”

Paul says she will hire local men to help remove rocks from her land and help turn the soil over. Then she and her three children will do the rest: planting, weeding and cultivating.

“I didn’t think I could do this,” she said excitedly, cuddling an eggplant. “But they came out.”

In one of the largest private gardens, Madeline Jean and four other women till the land and debate commodities like veteran agronomists, even though they are farming in just their second season.

“We planted whatever we could,” Jean says.

Their work finished for the moment, the women move from the hot sun to under shade and listen to a neighbor’s son strum a guitar made from an empty U.S. AID vegetable oil can, a piece of tree and five plastic guitar strings.

“It’s not like this, a long time ago this country was really beautiful,” the song goes. Jean nods with her eyes half-closed.

“We want to make it beautiful again,” she says.