Rebuilding with one eye on the future
Better irrigation, seed reserves offer promise in Haiti
La Branle, Haiti – If ever a community tottered on the brink, it is this village high in a rocky valley in northern Haiti. Stripped of forest and topsoil, the surrounding mountainsides act as giant slides for heavy rain. The river below floods with startling speed.
"The 2004 rains took everything – people, animals. We suffered a lot. We got no food aid and with the roads cut off we had to walk out and carry food back on our heads," says Acefie Pierre, a widow with four children. "It will be worse next time. We're really tired and we went into debt last time since the floods took away all the merchandise we sell at the market to make extra money and we had to buy more."
With donor support, FAO helped villages all over the Gonaives region. Le Branle was given 6 000 goats and 12 000 chickens. Lower down the river, villagers carry tonnes of rock in the 40° C heat to rebuild an irrigation system. In a nearby valley, poorer villagers asked for and received concrete drying platforms for crops. Slightly better off villagers got involved in the more demanding seed multiplication project.
But even amidst all the emergency relief, there has been time for development.
In Bassin Magnan, villagers complain the government used to collect an irrigation tax but give nothing back in materials or maintenance. Finally, villagers formed a users group so they could run the system themselves. Then the 2004 floods smashed the irrigation inlets at the river's edge.
When FAO arrived to fund work crews to fix the irrigation system, the Organization also funded the reinforcement of the river bed and banks near villages to minimize damage during future flash floods. The project trained villagers how to run a democratic and effective water users' group.
"FAO taught us water management, how to run meetings and draw up statutes adapted to our situation," says Sebastien Francois, president of the users' group, which has 650 members. "After the floods, production dropped almost to zero but now it has gone up and we are even trading seeds with other regions. We're getting help fixing this canal, but we have seven others we'd like some help on as well."
Raymonde Etienne, president of the village women's group, highlights the importance of irrigation in the district: "If there isn't rain, then production goes down and there is hunger in the area. It was important to start farming again as soon as possible after the floods. It is all we have."
At the end of every conversation about disaster preparedness in Haiti, the topic of reforestation comes up. Forested mountains absorb the rain while denuded mountains shed it. Only three percent of the country is still forested. Yet Haitian officials will tell you in the next sentence that planting trees is useless since the poor will cut them down to make charcoal – they need it for fuel or to sell for money to buy food.
FAO has obtained promising results with a watershed management project in northern Haiti, which integrates tree planting, better cropping systems and better animal husbandry into a farming package that increases farmer incomes and gives community members a stake in protecting the environment. The approach strengthens farmers’ organizations and promotes better participation of farmers in local government, giving them influence in local affairs and confidence that they can change their lives for the better. The project is supported by Canada.
Post-disaster seed reserve a step forward
Les Cayes, Haiti – If ever there was a symbol of hope, it is spread across the floor of the farmers' association shed here: bean seeds being processed for the country's first post-disaster seed reserve.
e-mail this article