For the past few years Permafund has been supporting a community organisation on La Gonave island in Haiti- AAE. We’ve provided two small-grants for nursery and planting programs, organised two locals to attend the international permaculture conference in Cuba and do the PDC there, organised permie volunteers to visit and work on the island and most recently supported the teaching of a PDC on the island.
I’d been to the island before, back in 2002 with Max Lindegger from Crystal Waters. We were there with World Vision to do a water supply assessment and were amazed and appalled at the water scarcity there. Over 100,000 people live on the island and our survey found the average water use was 7 litres per person per day. Incredibly low! The water came from community supply points – wells and hand pump bores, but many wells were empty and many bores had broken pumps and broken supply lines. We saw huge crowds around the points that were still working. Many had a long walk to get there and a long wait to get any water. The water they did get was often dirty and there were very high rates of diarrhoea and typhoid across the island.
This visit some things were different – many households had left their rural land and relocated to the local towns. The 2002 generation had been dominated by peasant farming but it seems many have now turned away from the hard work and uncertain reward of peasant agriculture. Unplanned housing was appearing around the fringes of the regional towns. Many people were around the streets looking for employment or selling from informal roadside stalls. Many households had members who had gone further to the mainland or Guadeloupe or the US to seek employment and send remittances home.
What hadn’t changed was the water scarcity and denuded eroding soils and the depleted ecology. The main economic activity was still meat goats and charcoal production. It’s estimated there’s 10,000 charcoal producers on the island, producing domestic cooking fuel and selling it on the mainland. The charcoal production and free ranging goats have prevented forestry regeneration for many years and been the main factor in reduced levels of groundwater for the wells and bore holes. There are very little fresh local vegetables in the markets. The main food is flour, maize, or rice – bulk imported from the US. The opportunity for agriculture to be a driver of rural development has not been realised and there is a substantial opportunity for Permaculture to offer improved life opportunities and improved ecology.
This trip I stayed with a local family. A different experience from 2002 when we stayed in a room in a local hotel – it was simple but at least they supplied water. This time water was not always available. It’s an amazing thing to get up in the morning and there’s no water, to come back at the end of a day and there’s no water, to realise that’s how families live. The family had a 3 year old and an 11 months old, no nappies and with limited water it was an obvious stress for the mother to maintain sanitation at floor level.
This trip’s main work was to present a PDC and support the two locals who had gone to Cuba. They’d come back inspired and wanted to do permaculture on the island. The Permafund had been communicating with the AAE committee and developed the village planning exercise as a specific element of the PDC to suit the situation on La Gonave. The AAE committee advertised around the island and collected over 50 people wanting to attend, many coming in small groups from the scattered rural communities.
The PDC went for 11 days over 3 weeks, mostly delivered outside under a tree as the available rooms were too small and too hot. Participation by over 50 people from various villages around the island, 45 stayed the full course and received the PDC. There was a strong engagement, they were astute listeners and asked lots of questions. They responded ecclesiastically to the notion of permaculture being a self-help methodology, locally organised, spread like as a movement, like a virus. That it wasn’t method controlled or owned by an entity.
The Village Plan exercise was done over the final three days at one of the villages where some of the students came from. We had a motorbike convoy to get there and 10 of us crammed into a borrowed World Vision land-cruiser, about 40 of the course participants attended and 50-60 from the local community. What a fantastic experience this turned out to be. Undertaken under a canopy of coconut fronds and a tarp made from woven plastic sacks. Three days and three basic steps – draw a map of the local area, discuss the changes that have happened over the past 30 years, set some goals for the future. The village had no water supply, only water there was from what was caught in monsoon season and stored in in-ground brick-walled pits, or collected from nearest village with water point about an hour’s walk away.
The community decided on 4 goals:
• more work with forage crops – planting more forage crops
• be a village were goats were not allowed to be free roaming
• every house have a toilet – no matter how simple the toilet.
• a water storage for monsoon collection in every house
When it was finished many participants were interested to take the village planning exercise back to their village and do their own. I don’t think anyone’s done it yet but it shows the level of interest in communities to plan and consider their future. This simple exercise liberated a natural interest in planning and caring foir their community and their livelihood. It shows this opportunity to support the ongoing program of village planning is a major piece of work for ongoing support. If enough villages did the activity they can be put together like a jigsaw puzzle and start to look like an island development plan. This is a big dream and it would be great to see Permafund able to assist further.
The two most significant issues for followup are:
• to support the implementation of the goals in the Lotorre village
• to support the PDC graduates to do the Village planning exercise in their home villages
There is a third task that emerged during the trip. It was a request from the town secretary at Anse A Galets, the islands main town. The town population was growing rapidly and with the urban migration and he requested;
• a village plan exercise for the Anse A Galets
This would be a significant challenge, a very different scale and diversity of task from the Village Plan, have many more issues and need a more considered and resourced program, more support and more funding.
To followup on these issues is a huge challenge for Permafund, but also a huge opportunity. A permaculture influenced approach to development on La Gonave could do significant benefit for these communities and the door is open there for us to support and do more. It doesn’t all need to be done by Permafund. In the weeks since returning I’ve been in contact with permies in the US to promote this opportunity to work on La Gonave. This liaison with permies in USA and France is something that could expanded.
The Permafund committee is fully stretch on a number of tasks as it seeks to grow and is calling for your support and assistance, both to support Permafund to do these projects and in specific support for this La Gonave work. Any donations big or small are most welcome, likewise with volunteer participation either on the committee or in responding on La Gonave.
Before closing I need to acknowledge the laughter and humanity of the Haitians. In the midst of these environmental and economic problems it was remarkable to realise they were getting on with their life with great loyalty, acceptance and friendships toward each other. Their capacity for humour, song, dance, and friendship in face of their difficulties was a great strength that we in Australia can learn from.
And finally I’d like to thank the AAE group in Haiti and in Australia, and the Permafund Committee for all the support and goodwill I was given in participating in this project. It was an incredible experience to return to the island, It’s been troubling me for the past 13 years that such circumstances exist and I hope this work can bring them some benefit.
Written by John McKenzie