Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, has often been a byword for deforestation and environmental calamity. It is often said its border with Dominican Republic can easily be seen from space. The difference between the lush forests of the east and the deserted wasteland of the west is so stark.
“In nature everything is connected to one other,” said Jean-Baptiste Chavannes, who in 1973 founded the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), which works to tackle deforestation and the climate crisis in Haiti’s poorest regions. “To disturb one is to disturb all.”
Haiti’s woes seem to deepen with each passing month. Two years ago, daily life in Haiti has been marked by widespread protests and fuel shortages. In July last year, the Caribbean country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinatedin his own house. In his own home, he was struck by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in the following month. EarthquakeThe attack killed at least 2,200 people, and destroyed tens of thousands more homes. In September, there were a series of deportations from the US of Haitian nationals. Alarming rise in kidnappingsHaiti into further instability.
But underpinning much of the vibrant yet embattled country’s troubles is environmental injustice and food insecurity, with 4.4 million people (of a population of nearly 11 million) at risk of hunger. Over the centuries, widespread deforestation has caused extensive damage to fertile lands and made them more vulnerable to flooding, drought, and erosion. Each year, agricultural degradation is caused by seasonal hurricanes that cause havoc to homes and livelihoods.
Previous top-down international projects for development flooded Haitian marketplaces with unsustainable food staples, hamstringing local farmers’ attempts to achieve food sovereignty.
MPP is a grassroots group that works with subsistence farmers across Haiti to tackle the climate crisis. With more than 40 years of experience in Haiti’s rural Central Plateau, MPP works with 60,000 members to improve deforested landscape so people living there can eat, while increasing forest cover to help reduce carbon levels.
“The struggle for food sovereignty is the fight against global warming,” Chavannes said. “All actions aimed at food sovereignty will have a direct impact on the climate crisis.”
MPP carries out its work directly with local people, while trying to reduce farmers’ reliance on multinational organisations and charities, which have often mismanaged resources and contributed to Haiti’s challenges, said Jusléne Tyresias, MPP’s programme director.
“A local approach is better because it creates direct employment, values local knowledge, skills, and resources,” she said, adding that large international NGOs often spent resources on pricey hotels and transport, rather than using local knowhow. “Locals living in the territory will be more involved because they know the severity of the problem better than those who come from outside.”
This grassroots approach has been praised by its international backers, including the Clima Fund. Global Greengrants Fund UKOne of them is Four charity partners in the Guardian and Observer’s 2021 Climate Justice Appeal, is a member in good standing of the Clima Fund. It will use its share to appeal donations for grassroots projects such MPP.
“MPP is a fantastic example of the kinds of grassroots movements the Clima Fund resources in over 160 countries globally; they demonstrate the efficacy of building solutions from the bottom up – not just what is built, but also how it’s built with whom,” said Lindley Mease, Clima’s fund director. “They meet the material needs of a climate-ravaged island through culturally appropriate and abundant food, sustainable water recapture systems, and increased soil health, while also maintaining an active membership of 61,000 people governed by a circle of women. As part of the 200 million member [international farmers’ movement] La Via Campesina, they are modelling how strategic, collective organising can cool the planet at scale.”
As a result of MPP’s work, swaths of the Central Plateau, once ravaged by deforestation, now teem with life. MPP’s network of peasant farmers has planted tens of millions of trees, while organisers have installed water infrastructure for homes and crops while training women and young Haitians in agro-ecology. Solar panels have been installed in homes to reduce dependence on wood for fuel. A radio station broadcasts ecological advice and training.
“Regionally and internationally, the MPP is part of global efforts to strengthen grassroots feminist movements, and is part of a global movement of small-scale farmers advancing food sovereignty with La Via Campesina,” said Sara Mersha, director of grant-making and advocacy at Grassroots International, after a visit to one of MPP’s projects.
“It’s this combination of strategies – with a focus on powerful organising and a connection with the earth – that make me understand what it means when MPP and La Via Campesina assert, ‘small farmers cool the planet!’”
MPP has also used rapid response teams during Haiti’s frequent natural disasters, including the earthquake that struck the south of the country in August. MPP provided shelter, food and water for the victims of that disaster. It also developed long-term resilience strategies like seed distribution and local infrastructure development.
MPP established eco-villages after an earthquake in Port-au-Prince and its surrounding areas in 2010, which killed more than 220,000 people. In which victims and survivors were taught how to farm and live sustainably.
Despite such a wide-ranging remit, MPP’s founder regards the movement’s work as grounded in one central tenet: sovereignty. “Sovereignty is nurtured as the right of every person to define environmentally friendly food production policies,” Chavannes said. “Respect for human life; respect for the rights of peasant families over agricultural land; the rights of indigenous peoples over their territories; respect for women’s rights and respect for culture; and the ways of feeding people.”