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25005: Chavraux (article) Chavannes Jean-Baptiste ensures a future for Haitian farmers (fwd)
From: Serge Chavraux <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Have a Peasant Tomorrow
Chavannes Jean-Baptiste ensures a future for Haitian farmers
By Michelle Nijhuis
22 Apr 2005
Grist Magazine: Environmental News and Commentary
Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, faces overwhelming
poverty. Massive deforestation has left its people vulnerable to deadly
mudslides and floods, such as those that killed an estimated 3,000 people in
late 2004, when tropical storm Jeanne swept through the area. The ouster of
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide last spring was only the latest upheaval in
this country's long history of political violence, repression, and
Yet Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the founder of the Peasant Movement of Papay,
has hope for the environment and people of Haiti. An agronomist, he has
spent more than three decades training tens of thousands of farmers to use
water-saving irrigation systems, natural fertilizers and pesticides, and
simple erosion-prevention techniques. He's also fought for legal and
economic justice for rural Haitians.
Jean-Baptiste's efforts have exacted a great personal cost: he has faced
several assassination attempts, and was forced into exile from 1993 to 1994.
But his work has also resulted in the planting of more than 20 million fruit
and forest trees and, he says, fostered a strong sense of solidarity among
the subsistence farmers in his area. "They've come to understand that
together, they can change the way they live," he says.
Jean-Baptiste was awarded a 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize at a ceremony
in San Francisco on April 18. He spoke with Grist through a translator.
Question: Tell me how you came to found the Peasant Movement of Papay.
I started my work in 1972. I was a Catholic lay worker, and as part of my
training I had to find out how peasants in the region were doing
agriculture. I began to learn from the peasants that their biggest problems
weren't technical -- I thought from my education that that would be the case
-- but were more socioeconomic and cultural. So I had to rethink everything.
I began to read, and do a lot of research, and from this I began to discover
my own way of educating. I began to realize that the peasantry had problems
with divisions among themselves, and that they were extremely fatalistic,
and that these problems and issues were holding them back. Little by little,
I developed a method of education and organization. I started in 1973 with
two small groups, and now we have a movement of 60,000 people.
Question: How have you engaged so many people in your efforts?
The secret is that I knew how to eliminate the divisions that separate
people, and to create solidarity. The thing that weaves people together is
solidarity around economic, social, and work issues. I also understood what
their real interests and needs were. Their immediate need was for the
production of food, and we realized that to assist with the production of
food we had to create respect for the land, create security in land tenure,
and protect the people from the rampages of the middleman. We had to look at
all aspects of farm production.
So we began by addressing the immediate needs of the peasant, then moved
into other areas. We fought for peasants to have justice in the courts,
struggled with them against unfair taxation, and fought with them against
the usury system -- which sometimes charges people 300 percent interest per
year. We now have a credit union, so peasants can borrow money without
paying such high interest rates. The stocking of seeds for the future allows
peasants to make a greater profit from production, and training in organic
and sustainable farming has increased the capacity of farmers.
It's these kinds of struggles, against all kinds of abuses, that have caused
the peasants to come together in solidarity.
Question: What do you think is your greatest success so far?
The peasants now understand that they are the actors for change in their own
lives. They've come to understand that together, they can change the way
they live. They've come to understand that they can create their own destiny
-- that it's not something created by someone else and imposed on them.
There's a Haitian proverb: "What man makes, he can remake." People, human
beings, have degraded the environment, and human beings need to repair it.
Question: You currently chair the national council on peasant issues. Will
this position help your work?
I joined this commission with great hope. But alas, those hopes have not
been realized, as the new government does not truly have proposals to help
the peasants. It's possible that I am going to have to denounce
Of the many challenges facing the land and people of Haiti today, what do
you consider to be the most pressing?
The destruction of the environment is the greatest problem facing Haiti
today. At the time of Haiti's independence [in 1804], it was 80 percent
covered with forest. Today, less than 2 percent is forest. That situation is
threatening daily life in Haiti, and you can see this in the terrible
destruction caused by the flooding after [tropical storm Jeanne] last year.
Agricultural production in the country has fallen to an extremely low level,
and the peasantry is dependent on imported food, which plunges them into
extreme poverty. Haiti now produces only 40 percent of the food we eat. In
addition, we have the terrible problem of political instability. It's
difficult to make a list of priorities -- we have to deal with these
problems all at once.
Question: What will this award mean for your work?
Because it is a prize for the environment, we will invest it in the
environment. We will create programs for water management, and increase our
efforts to produce more food and trees at the same time. We'll develop more
and distribute more natural pesticides and fertilizers, and invest part of
the prize in different sources of alternative energy.
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