The Haitian hamlet of Robio isn’t easy to reach or leave. This farming community is perched atop a high, piney ridge not far from the Dominican Republic border. We made the daylong trip by hiring a Land Cruiser in Port-Au-Prince and driving a few hours up a rough road with another hour by foot and donkey to reach the community. Later that afternoon, foot travel for our circuitous return to the city required another hour or so down the steep, gravelly path to where the Toyota was waiting in Fond-Verrettes.
The mountain scenery was epic and the good folks of Robio were extremely hospitable, singing as we made our way down the trail to the local church. During the trek, we noticed that their steep, terraced plots and multi-storied home gardens produced English peas, mustard greens, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, sweet potatoes, pigeonpeas, avocadoes, plantains, mangos and many other crops. Making a living on hillsides isn’t easy and those farmers have my respect.
While negotiating the trail toward Fond-Verrettes, I wondered how many more remote Robio-like communities are scattered across this beautiful, mountainous country.
The journey to Robio was made during my first visit to Haiti, which was also my first international technical consultation with Cultivate Abundance. Besides promoting household, congregational and community gardening for the benefit of Florida’s farmworkers, Cultivate Abundance also provides technical advisory services for agencies serving smallholder farmers and gardeners in farmworker source countries, particularly Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti.
At the invitation of Mark Buhlig, founder of Points on the Wheel, and Josue Octeus, the Executive Director of the Haiti-based Samaritan’s Heart, I flew to Port-Au-Prince with Mark and his friend Josh Payne, a Missouri farmer and seminarian. My role was to observe and, to the degree possible, offer useful feedback for these two organizations regarding their collaborative educational and agricultural efforts.
Another personal reason for visiting Haiti was for exposure and improved understanding. My three decades in international agricultural development work has included long-term involvement among migrant hilltribe communities along the Thai-Myanmar border as well as consultation work in other parts of Asia and Africa. My previous involvement with ECHO gave me opportunity to assist development workers serving in Haiti, though from afar. And while I’m also on the board of Plant with Purpose, a San Diego-based development organization which has engaged in decades of effective engagement in Haiti, until February 2018, I never had opportunity to visit this country.
Additionally, a significant portion of Immokalee’s residents are from Haiti, many of whom are clients of soup kitchens and food pantries. As we prepare to engage the Haitian-Americans in household and community gardening, their food heritage and preferences are major considerations. And what Haitian farming and gardening approaches should I see for myself before engaging this community in Immokalee?
During our second day in country, we met a Florida farmworker in the town of Arcahaie. He showed me his identity card that verified his employment with a Florida farm. I’m not sure what he was doing back in Haiti or whether he intended to return to the US.
The following day in Robio, during a community meeting, we were given the chance to ask about local livelihoods and challenges. The residents shared that most of the rain-fed, hillside farms are smaller – actually, much smaller - than two hectares (4.9 acres). While locally grown sweet potato, cassava and corn provide much of their needed food energy, they still depend on purchased rice and pasta as well as cooking oil. They reported that access to adequate hand tools is a challenge. And they also stressed the need for fertilizers and certain seeds, all of which are expensive to obtain.
I asked whether they experience periods of hunger and their collective answer was a resounding “Yes!” with May, June and November being the leanest months. The crop diversity we observed around households appeared to be the key to their survival during periods of food insecurity.
The community members spoke to other challenges including the difficulty of marketing cash crops such as the carrots they grow. Without road access to the nearest market, donkeys are required to transport farm commodities down the steep trail. Not surprisingly, much of what they produce for the market spoils before it can be sold.
Education for their children is also a major concern with some of the students reportedly having to rise at 3.00 a.m. to get to the school on time and not returning to their homes before 6.00 p.m. As non-public education makes up 90 percent of primary schools in Haiti, children in remote communities, such as Robio, are particularly disadvantaged.
Friends who know Haiti much better than I have shared that even those who can attain an education still struggle to find adequate employment. That being the case, might it be possible for agriculture to somehow offer a viable occupational option for Haiti’s educated youth?
Five days of limited travel in Haiti qualifies no one the right to offer insights or recommendations. But for what they’re worth, here are a few of my observations regarding the small-scale farmers and gardeners I met.
It’s obvious that Haitians face tremendous challenges. The country has been dealt some bad cards including the 2010 earthquake as well as political instability, economic hurdles and the effects of a series of hurricanes. Unfair U.S. trade policy has hurt Haitian farmers, especially in the rice sector. Haiti’s life expectancy fell after the earthquake and has yet to recover. I don’t think that describing an overall sense of despair would be an exaggeration.
On the other hand, the Haitian food producers that I encountered are efficient and not wasteful. I saw very little arable land (or even marginally arable land) that wasn’t planted in food crops. Even in Port-Au-Prince, small plots and margins of land would have established plantings of cassava, banana, mango, papaya and pigeonpea.
My observation is that both urban and rural food producers are hardworking, using hand tools to transform rocky hillsides and vacant lots into sources of local food.
They’re also resourceful, often using locally-available natural inputs, such as legume cover crops and the manure of livestock to improve and maintain the soil.
And, obviously, they’re resilient. Farming where hurricanes and droughts are common requires the strategic selection of a diversity of hardy, deep-rooted crops. Should one key crop fail, hopefully there are others to fill in the gap.
On the way to the airport, I discussed the observed prevalence of farming and gardening with Rev. Josue. He stated that despite the ever-present challenges of wind, rain and drought, farmers persist and are sometimes surprised with a good harvest. Consequently, I think that we should add a degree of hope and optimism to the list of positive traits of Haiti’s small-scale food producers.
Headed back to Immokalee, I have a better idea of the food and crop preferences of the Haitian community including vegetable amaranth, chayote, pigeonpea, mustard greens and Scotch bonnet peppers. And considering their indigenous farming/gardening heritage, I’m certain that we’re going to meet Haitian farmworkers who not only know how to garden, but who are actually producing food on a household level despite the Immokalee challenges of limited land, time and other resources.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to connect the dots between our Haiti- and Immokalee-based partners in expectation that technical knowledge, local wisdom, inspiration and other resources will flow and mix from both ends for the mutual benefit of everyone.