Friday, February 27, 2015

Locovorism: The bounty of Haiti as seen on Lambi Fund's 20th Anniversary Delegation

By Anna Ferdinand

Anna Ferdinand is a journalist who covered the political climate in Haiti during the mid 90s through the early 00s and the earthquake in 2010. Anna, and her two children, joined the Lambi Fund of Haiti on our 20th Anniversary Delegation in February 2015. 

Anna enjoys Haiti's cuisine with her children.
The week before my two children and I left for Haiti to travel with the Lambi Fund during the year of their 20th anniversary, I started a new unit with my sophomores on locovorism. Students were to read various arguments and data on the impact of eating locally grown food and argue what a community would need to consider before implementing a local food program. It was a tall order geared to prepare students for the Smarter Balance Assessment test Washington State will be implementing before the year’s end.  

First step was asking students what they thought the word meant.  Many thought it might have something to do with crazy people. Others read the writing prompt or connected the root words loc and vore and came up with “Local eating”.

“So, no coffee or bananas, right?” I pointed out.

“Does McDonalds count as eating locally?” One student asked.  Great question. “No.”  

Many said it would be impossible to eat locally, so I asked students to imagine what tribal people of yore ate, or to think about what is grown on the farms of the fertile Skagit Valley where we live.  “Just call it out!”

Kids began to call out: “salmon”, “crab”, “oysters”, “apples”, “potatoes”, “elk”, “tomatoes”, “spinach”, “peas” and on and on.

Some of the art displayed at the Kinam Hotel.
The connection between this mini-unit of study and the six-day journey with the Lambi Fund delegation to visit various projects deep in Haiti’s countryside was not initially apparent to me. But by the end of this foray deep into the heart of Haiti, it became clear that locovorism, as expressed through the avocado, papaya, rice, millet, corn, grapefruit, plantain, cassava, peanut, pigeon pea, and on and on, formed the backbone of the economy and was a fundamental means toward economic survival in a country where McDonalds simply, and mercifully, does not exist.

There were seven guests that joined the Lambi Fund staff the first week of February in the newly renovated Kinam Hotel, with a the new annex built onto the gingerbread charm of the original, boasting faux Chihuly chandeliers, statues, vases and large Haitian paintings of vibrant flowers on sleek white walls.

Guests on the excursion were greeted in the charm of the tiled restaurant on the gingerbread side, overlooking the outdoor pool, by original founding member, Josette Perard, based in Haiti, Executive Director Marie Marthe Saint Cyr and Assistant Director Katiana Anglade, both based in New York, along with Deputy Director Stephen Reichard, based in Portland, and anthropologist K. Jessica Hsu, the board secretary, currently based in Haiti.  Paul Rodney Henry, Ferry Pierre Charles and Frank Sylvain, all three agronomists who train, assess and evaluate Lambi Fund projects around the country were present, and would be our guides into the world beyond Petionville and the new fancy hotel.
Joining the Lambi Fund staff was Edwidge Danticat, whose fiction and non-fiction explore the complex beauty and tragedies of Haiti and the psychological dance of spanning the worlds of her two countries.  She was returning on a Lambi delegation 20 years after her first with the organization’s founding in 1994.  Dr. Chris Pannkuk, director of Washington State University’s International Research and Agricultural Development program joined the delegation. He has worked extensively around the world in reforestation, dry land irrigation and soil conservation. Louise Davis and Jeanette Hagen, childhood friends from Maine, both traveled to Haiti for the first time.   They help run a small private foundation called PRBB that supports women’s organizations around the world.  And myself - a former journalist in Haiti - along with my two children, Clea, 16 and Taino, 13, who were returning to the country for the first time since 2004.

Edwidge Danticat and Chamille Chalmers.
Chamille Chalmers kicked off the week by introducing members of the delegation to the new Haiti context: the post quake, post democracy Haiti– there are currently ten parliamentarians with legal mandates, leaving President Michelle Martelly to rule by decree. Chalmers, a professor and member of the political party KAPAB, laid out his global assessment of the problems in Haiti: Aid going to anyone but the Haitians, projects run by foreign investors with minimal use of Haitian employees; and mining interests, textile industry and tourism - all entities run by foreign companies and aimed at an exterior market – taking precedence over national production.

Under Martelly, he says, the national debt has spiraled. Plans for free school for all have been riddled with corruption and unpaid teachers. A planned tourism project on the island of Ile-a-Vache with two golf courses, a resort and international airport and port that would displace many thousands of people from their land, seems to be the business de jour; an industrial park built on valuable farmland in northern Haiti with a quarter of funds from Haiti’s earthquake reconstruction was projected to employ 60,000 but is currently employing roughly 5,000. 
Marie, Chris, Louise, and Anna converse before leaving PAP.

Delegation members took notes; teenagers, weary from all night travel did their best listening to Marie Marthe’s translations, before ducking out to watch the Super Bowl, the last shred of Americana before immersing ourselves completely into the country.

The delegation was set to leave at ten the following morning to tour Port-au-Prince then head north to the L’Artibonite valley, often called the rice bowl of Haiti.  But a national strike had been called in protest of the high price of gas.  All of Haiti’s major arteries had been shut down by blockades of rocks, burning tires and carcasses of vehicles.  
In-country Lambi staff determined it would be safe to leave the capital around three and we piled suitcases into three cars to make the trip north.  The agronomists were our guides as we worked our way down the back streets of the Delmas neighborhood, to the national road heading north, blocked by a barricade of rocks and car frames.  

We rerouted to Route Neuf, the road from Cite Soleil that bypasses the congested suburb of Northern Port-au-Prince and leads to the main thoroughfare heading north, mercifully coming to a recently-cleared barricade. The road passes near Titayen, the area where bodies from the ‘91 coup were brought to their unmarked graves.  It is also a garbage dumping site and the smell of burning garbage permeated the air of the car as we headed to the freedom of uncongested roads, passing the new Olympic training stadium just before turning left onto Route National #1.

We sailed through Cabaret, stopped at Achailles for candied peanuts, or tablet, drove through Mont Rouis, lined with merchants of fresh-caught fish and crab, cooked in large vats with rice and beans and kalalou, and women selling mango and soursop, manioc and banan peze with griot, Haiti’s national street food dish of fried plantain and pork. We pushed our way through the crowded seaside town of Saint Marc, sailed through Pond Sonde, home of the former Agrarian Reform program of the ‘96-‘01 Preval Government, passed emerald rice patties with farmers wading in water, sparse standing cattle with white egrets balancing effortlessly on their backs.

We zipped through L’estere on roads, once corrupted and riddled with potholes, now presentable with yellow lines, ignored by most drivers.  We passed homes with cement yards used to dry rice after harvest, coming to the arid desert span before reaching the flat, dry town of Gonaives.  Gas stations hosted long lines of Motorcycle taxi chauffeurs filling up on five-dollar gallons of gas.

It was dusk as we continued north on Route National #1 toward Cap Haitien.  The unpaved road, currently under construction by Dominican contractors, was bumpy and we jostled through the plains just outside of Gonaives, into the Pass Reine area up and into the foothills into the town of Ennery to the newly constructed Village D’Ennery hotel.   

The sprawling complex of sun-yellow buildings with white trim, two pools, outdoor restaurant, and landscaped pagodas was virtually empty, save for a small Spanish-speaking group.  A major conference for officials from the Ministry of Education had been canceled due to the strike, and rescheduled for the following week.  The opportunity to inquire into the much-maligned “free school for all” program would have to wait for another time.

Breakfast began with bananas and locally grown coffee.  White bread and jiffy peanut butter stopped the locovore roll.  The Cuban chef, soliciting suggestions, would hear from the delegation, whose primary role in Haiti was to support the local, organic production of Haiti’s foods by farmers whose livelihoods are based on farming the land.  

Day one of the real meat of our journey began after breakfast: visiting associations and their various projects within a thirty-mile radius of the hotel. It began with another blockade.  Though a second day of strikes had been planned, the strike had reportedly been lifted due to Government negotiations with transportation unions, bringing down the price of gas by 20 cents.  But the delegation was stopped just outside of Gonaives by a blockade of rocks and tires. A group of young men indicated that passage would be impossible; however, after fifteen minutes the police arrived, sending those around the barrier running.  Soon we were clear to head into Gonaives, taking a road which heads northwest towards the town of Gros Mornes.

Exploring CPP grounds.

We arrived at the Center for Plantain Propagation (CPP), a center with a meeting building, nurseries and a greenhouse set up to cultivate plantains.  The local plantain variety of the area had been ravaged by disease.  The project, funded by Lambi, began 8 years ago to test certain varieties that would be resistant to the disease and thrive in the area of the planter’s association. 

The head of the program was trained by Lambi in the PIF method (planting from bits of the stem), and showed the delegation how to peel away layers of the plantain bulb, cut away spots that could infect the plant, removing the stem from the top of the bulb. Plantains do not reproduce and must be manually cultivated. The peeled bulb is dried for 24 hours, then scored with an X on top to allow for shoots to grow from the sides of the bulb.  The bulb is then placed in a mixture of compost and sawdust where it can sprout up to fifteen shoots in a month. CPP members brought us to the nursery where the bulbs, like mothers in a ward, were cared for in optimal conditions. Those shoots are separated from the mother then transplanted. The bulb is replanted and begins to reproduce again. Four months can provide up to 60 plants.  
CPP staff member demonstrates the decortication process.

Planters who have benefited from the new disease resistant variety spoke of the old variety, which often blackened before arriving at the market, provided fewer branches on the plant and fewer plantains on each branch. Several planters attested to the change this new disease-resistant variety had brought into their lives - the ability to send children to school, reinvest in their farms and a competitive market that sprouted with the new variety.  

Following was a visit to the micro-credit program run by AGPBRM, an organization just outside of Gros Morne.  It began with music, as did each of the six following visits – collectives singing together of the fundamental role the planter, and those who bear the brunt of countryside living in areas with little infrastructure.  “We are the bamboo,” went one song, “they can cut us and burn us, but when the rain falls we will sprout anew.” 

There was hope in each place - far down corrupted roads, amid communities of pastel painted homes, candelabra fences, pink blossoms of the Bougainville – in the collective voices which sang of pride in the role of providing the nation’s food, love for each fruit of the tree, the stalk and the labor that goes into the work.
AGPBRM reviews their books for the delegation.

After introductions on both sides, committee leaders ran over the books they keep for the moneys received from the Lambi Fund; the amount of loans given, those reimbursed and the amount of money remaining in their coffers after payment.

The members spoke of their reforestation program, literacy programs and scholarships for those identified in the community as having the least ability to go to school.  Various members shared how those loans had helped: a woman with seven children who came from the Northwest, took a loan for her fried food vending business and earned money to build a house; an older man who used his money to buy goats and sell the meat.

Daughters of AGPBRM members offer coconut water.
When the meeting was over, one of the women laid a basket laden with mango, soursop, grapefruit, coconut and papaya on the ground before the delegation.  Coconut water in hand, we were led to a schoolroom built off the main meeting space and ate local rice with pigeon peas, fried goat, double fried plantains and pickles (Cabbage, carrot, habanero pepper, lime juice and vinegar) beets, watercress, tomato and grapefruit juice - a locovore’s dream.

Day two we traveled to Bige, a small community up a road that overlooks a valley below, and bare mountains on the other side that jut up into blue sky.  Green patches of trees peppered the ragged plateau with candelabra fences lining homes, painted in pastels. Marie Marthe commented to one of the heads of the Peasant Organization of Bige (OPB) how much greener it was from their last visit, a landscape that, according to the head of the organization, had been a kite flyers dream due to the lack of trees.  Members had implemented a reforestation program, planting coconut, avocado, lemon, mango, and a variety of pine tree, among others.  Members of the association provided group members with mangos, dripping with sweetness.

The call of the lambi.
After the call of the conch, members gathered in the yard of a home with a catchment system, consisting of gutters on the home that funnel water into a PVC pipe and into a large cistern.  

“We used to lose a night walking to the white mountains you see behind us,” one of the committee members told the Lambi delegation.  In 1991, at the behest of Lambi’s Regional Monitor Joseph Dorsainvil, the community members officially organized into OPB, the Peasant Organization of Bige.  Since that time 30 cisterns have been built in the area, serving family compounds all over the community.

This project was primarily a goat husbandry association.  The group began with 250 goats and now has 560 according to committee members 

Dorsainvil, also known affectionately as TiDjo, is originally from Gonaives and has been working to gather groups of peasants for over thirty years.  He is trained in accounting and business mathematics, management for popular banks and small businesses, as well as the organizing of cooperatives. 

“I train people in how to carry out sustainable agriculture without fertilizer, with compost,” he says of his work with the associations.  At a credit union for women further down the road later in the afternoon he trained much of the Lambi delegation in a finance lesson, describing the terms – two percent interest with what he called a degressive loan in which interest is paid back on the remainder of the balance, rather than the amount of the initial loan.  Each association provided the delegation with figures going back to the group’s inception, detailed books noting all costs, loans, revenue etc.
TiDjo meets with project members.

“I chose this work because I saw that the peasants were the ones that were most poverty stricken,” Dorsainvil told me at one of our stops.  “They had the unity and collectivity but they didn’t have the knowhow.  We provide them a framework, they put their heads together.  I follow up with them and provide them with training.  With everything that you do, you have to have training and preparation.”

Another meal of Haiti’s bounty was provided at a second stop of the day, a women’s collective and micro-credit fund.  That evening we stopped at a cooperative outside of Gonaives, a former chicken corral now abandoned and were treated to a performance by AWOZAM.  The female led choral, with a lead female drummer, represent a group from Jean Rabel, and have worked to build cisterns, and run mills funded by Lambi.  They performed songs of protest for the delegation, singing of a country for sale, a textile industry which has brought pollution to their river, of leaders who ignore the true needs of the people, and songs of remembrance of the Jean-Rabel Massacre of 1987 when a landowner killed 139 peasants in a dispute over state-owned land - all sung in call and response over intoxicating rhythms and subtle dance, bringing the delegation to their feet in the end, who joined hands in a circle as drums cascaded over the plains and into the night. 
The last day we journeyed to the plains outside of Gonaives, where a mill for corn, rice and millet helped planters who previously had to pay for transportation to mill their harvest.  The drought in the lower plains is acute here outside of Gonaives and the flight of the young to the bigger cities has plagued the countryside, according to farmers here. The mill has helped, but association members expressed the need for water pumps for irrigation.

AWOZAM performs!
Further up a long stretch of bumpy road in Bayonnais, a town in the foothills of the mountains that create a barrier between Gonaives and Cap Haitien, water seems to flow freely. This group runs a micro-credit program, a mill and a reforestation program.  Parrots and white pigeons flitted around the lush green landscape where we ate our final meal of the food of Haiti next to hundreds of trees – lime, sour orange and mahogany – waiting for transplantation into Haiti’s soil.

As a journalist in Haiti I covered the devastating effect of failed politics from 1995 up to the insurrection in 2004, the cataclysmic earthquake that destroyed the face of the capital, the politics of the preceding elections and the cholera that ravaged the country like wild fire.  This journey was a reminder of the seed in the center of all the turmoil, that could be slashed and burned, but had an innate capacity to sprout anew.  Lambi was working the PIF here in Haiti, planting bits from the stem of Haiti’s roots to foster that process of growth by providing easier access to water, credit funds, and infrastructure - needs identified by the associations with a homegrown team on the ground to assess projects, implement them, train members and follow up to ensure success.
The entire delegation together.

Our final meal at the Village d’Ennery, a long table filled with the writers, teachers, agronomists, students, organizers, and researchers, was filled with laughter over too many fish inadvertently ordered.  The group had fused before being set free like fish back into their own lives, having borne witness to the collectives of the L’Artibonite. A major march was planned for Saturday, the day of departure and the broken politics of the nation played on.  But deep in the heart of Haiti my children and I knew that the planting and harvesting was continuing – that locovorism was a way of life, an identity of a people perhaps stronger than anywhere I had seen.  It gave me hope for a smarter balance beyond the textile mills that churn out t-shirts.  We touched down in Seattle, the only three to applaud, and journeyed back north to the classrooms of the Skagit Valley.  And I told my students of the locovorists I had met, and they knew just what I meant.