IT STARTS LIGHTLY, barely audible under the tin roof of the communal dining room. In minutes, the downpour picks up momentum and is accompanied by lightning and thunder. These summer months are what locals living in the peasant enclave of Papaye, in Haiti’s Central Plateau, call the flooding season — a time for early corn and sugar cane harvests amid the mud and lush green hills that stretch as far as the eye can see. Mocelyn Saintilmon sits at one of the large wooden tables in the dining room of the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP), Haiti’s largest and most politicized peasant organization. In front of him are heaps of white rice and pinto beans, fried goat meat, or cabrit, and a flavorful tomato-and-onion sauce.
“See this rice? This is the only thing that we didn’t grow ourselves in Papaye,” Saintilmon says. But the farmers do grow beans, mangoes, sugar cane, tomatoes, corn, and bananas — enough for MPP members like Saintilmon to feed their families, serve free communal meals, and sell at local markets. By making locally farmed produce available in a corner of a country that typically imports more than 50 percent of the food it consumes, the MPP has introduced the concept of “food sovereignty” to thousands of people who might have otherwise left the fields for the capital in search of opportunity.
“Both my father and grandfather belong to the MPP, so being a peasant has always been in my blood,” says Saintilmon. “But what didn’t come so naturally was my awareness that food production, at least in Haiti, could be so political. That I owe to this movement.”
At six-thirty in the morning, Papaye’s air is already heavy with humidity. The evening downpour has left the soil ready for digging, and the members of Saintilmon’s gwoupman have already been at work for an hour trying to make the most of that small window of time when the sun is out but its rays aren’t scorching. A twelve-member gwoupman, or peasant working collaborative, is a Haitian tradition in which a group of neighbors plant together, harvest together, and share the fruits of their labor.
“It has never occurred to me to move to Port-au-Prince,” Saintilmon continues. “On the contrary, I talk to young people who are thinking about going to the city, or to Santo Domingo, and I tell them about the importance of staying here, of building our home, of working collectively. They think they’re not capable of finding opportunities here so they flee, but they don’t realize how hard life is in Port-au-Prince.” This is especially true in the capital city today, overwhelmed as it is with a million homeless and a cholera epidemic, eighteen months after the devastating earthquake of January 2010. The quality of life is so poor in Port-au-Prince that a farming town like Papaye is witnessing something unimaginable in years past — a tide of urban refugees ready to start over as farmers. The MPP has encouraged this reverse migration with free shelter, food, and training for families eager to join their cause.
To twenty-six-year-old Moccène Joachim, who works with Saintilmon, the MPP’s appeal is obvious, even though farming is all he’s ever known. Today, he and his gwoupman are demarcating a small plot of land they will reforest with avocado trees and moringa, a tree whose leaves are used as a nutritional supplement. “Every day I farm my own plot and then with my gwoupman,” he says, taking a break under a large mango tree. “When I’m done, I go out and talk to other people about what food sovereignty means. I’m young and without a college education, but I know things about life that I couldn’t have learned by living in the big city.” Among other things, Joachim has learned about practicing true sustainability by combining labor-intensive techniques, traditional drainage systems, and more efficient methods of seed collection and husbandry. Young farmers of his generation are also developing alternative reforestation solutions that address Haiti’s particular needs not only by preventing erosion — a daunting problem in a country with near total deforestation — but by bringing back native species such as the calabash tree and Jamaica walnut, which were traditionally used for medicinal and nutritional purposes. Agronomist Jean-Baptiste Chavannes started the MPP in 1973 at great personal risk — he has survived several assassination attempts and was once forced into exile — to address a number of critical issues plaguing the Haitian countryside. Once the country’s breadbasket, the Central Plateau suffered from increased deforestation, as well as emigration to Port-au-Prince and the nearby Dominican Republic. There were few paved roads and no potable water or electricity — a reality that remains the case in much of rural Haiti. Those were the years of President Jean-Claude Duvalier, or “Baby Doc” — a time of brutal political persecutions, mounting foreign debt, and little rural investment.
Chavannes struggled to find a way to stay in the countryside and work the land. Motivated by a Belgian priest at his childhood church, he developed grand plans to rebuild the rural Central Plateau based on the traditional gwoupman system of collaboration. Peasants paid a few gourdes in monthly membership fees to join one of the dozens of gwoupmans and farm unused state-owned lands. Early MPP members had to commit to a long-term vision for the countryside, even if that meant hard physical labor, no access to high schools or college for their kids, no paved roads, and no prospect of office jobs.
“We started with two groups; in 1975 we went to nine,” says Chavannes, now in his sixties. Today the MPP has more than fifty thousand members in the Central Plateau and manages a handful of small health clinics, runs a radio station, offers basic solar power for local homes, builds cisterns, and runs workshops for local and international farmers. When he isn’t traveling around Haiti to visit other MPP chapters, or meeting with partner organizations and funders internationally, Chavannes is spending time at the union’s headquarters in Papaye. The mountains surrounding his agricultural enclave are covered in green and increasingly peppered with fruit trees planted by young farmers like Saintilmon and Joachim. But he insists there’s a Haiti beyond Papaye that could benefit from the hard work of young peasants.
“There’s a long road ahead for us in regards to the environment, peasant agriculture, and land rights,” he says, pausing to collect his thoughts as the dense canopy of palm trees above sways back and forth with the morning breeze. “The earthquake may have hit Port-au-Prince, but it has affected all of us. It has set our clocks back to zero. I see it as a unique opportunity to think about how we’d like to rebuild Haiti.”