Story by John Mckenzie, Permafund Committee, September 2015

For the past few years Permafund has been supporting community development work on La Gonave Island in Haiti. Over 100,000 people live on the island, nearly all in water poverty. Haiti has one of the worst water supply situations on the planet with use in the range of 5 to 20 litres per person per day. This is incredibly low and comes with accompanying problems. The water is often dirty so there are sanitation and hygiene hazards, and access to water may be a long walk away. Water is also a core issue in the wider context of a degraded agricultural landscape and little economic activity.
Permafund has supported the communities on the island with grants, mentoring and capacity building. We supported a nursery and a planting program, we introduced them to the IPC11 organisers in Cuba and assisted in getting two delegates into the conference and PDC there in 2013, we organised permie volunteers to visit and work on the island and most recently, in May 2015, delivered a PDC and Village Planning workshop on the island.

Water insecurity on La Gonave

I’d been to the island before, 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. Over 100,000 people live on the island and our survey found the average water use was 7 litres per person per day! The water came from community wells and hand pumped tube bores, but many wells were empty and many bores were broken. We saw huge crowds around the water points that still had water. Many had walked a long way, kilometres, to get there, then had a long wait to get to the front of the line, finding when they did get there that the water was often dirty. There were very high rates of diarrhoea and typhoid across the island.
This recent visit to support the PDC and Village Planning project occurred across four weeks in March and April 2015. Much had changed since the visit in 2002. Then the island’s life was dominated by peasant agriculture with households working their small acreage holdings and cutting for charcoal between seasons. Households were dispersed across the island with a few towns. Now, many households have left their rural plots and relocated to regional towns. Informal settlements have grown around the island’s towns. Households have left the difficult work and uncertain reward of peasant agriculture and have been looking for employment in the towns or trade from informal roadside stalls. Many households had members who had gone further, to the Haitian mainland or Guadeloupe (French) or the US, seeking employment and the prize of being able to send remittances home.

Deforestation: Charcoal and goats

What hadn’t changed since 2002 was the water scarcity, the denuded eroding soils and the depleted ecology. The island’s main primary commodity was still charcoal and goats for meat. It is estimated there are 10,000 charcoal producers on the island. Charcoal is used for domestic cooking fuel in all the township communities and most of it gets sold to traders and sailed across to the mainland and sold in the capital Port Au Prince.
The tree cutting for charcoal and the free-ranging goats have prevented forest regeneration for many years and have been the main factors causing erosion and reduced levels of groundwater for the wells and bore holes. There are very few fresh local vegetables in the markets. The main food is flour, maize, or rice – bulk imported from the US. The few vegetables I saw in markets had all been brought from the mainland. The opportunity for agriculture to be a driver of rural development has not been realised and has been derailed by the food aid programs.
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-month old, no nappies and with limited water. It was an obvious stress for the mother to maintain good sanitation at floor level.

The PDC and village planning workshop

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 was by over 50 people from various villages around the island, 45 stayed for the full course and received the PDC.  There was a strong engagement, they were astute listeners and asked lots of questions. They responded enthusiastically to the notion of permaculture being a self-help methodology, locally organised, to spread like a movement, like a virus. They understood that it wasn’t method controlled or owned by an entity.

The village plan

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 PDC 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 with three basic steps – draw a map of the local area, discuss the changes that have happened over the past 30 years and set some goals for the future. The village had no water supply. The only water there was from what was caught in monsoon season and stored in in-ground brick-walled pits, or collected from the nearest village with a 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 where goats were not allowed to be free roaming
  • every house to 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 planning exercise. I don’t think anyone’s done it yet but it shows the level of interest in communities to plan and consider their future.

Improved opportunities for local people through Permaculture

This simple exercise liberated a natural interest in planning and caring for their community and their livelihood. If enough villages did the activity they could be put together like a jigsaw puzzle and start to look like an island development plan.
This is a big dream, it is a major piece of work. This opportunity to support the ongoing program of village planning would be great if Permafund could assist further, to support the implementation of the goals in the Lotorre village and to support the PDC graduates to do the Village Planning exercise in their home villages.
The Town Secretary at Anse A Galets, the island’s main town, has also asked that a Village Planning exercise be done for the town. He said the town population was growing rapidly and there was little or no planning happening for it. Doing a Permaculture design and Village Plan for the town would be a significant challenge, a very different scale and diversity of tasks from the Village Plan. It would involve many more issues and need more people, skills, support and funding.

Opportunities for Permafund and permies to assist at La Gonave

There is a substantial opportunity for the Permaculture movement to contribute to improved life opportunities and improved ecology on the island, and I hope this work can be organised to happen. A permaculture-influenced approach to development on La Gonave could provide many significant benefits for these communities and the door is open there for us to support and do more. The Permafund committee is committed to a number of tasks as it seeks to grow and is calling for your support and assistance for this La Gonave work. The Permafund committee wants to support permies to visit and work on these projects. In the weeks since returning I’ve been in contact with permies in the US to promote this work and we hope to put this message to IPC12 in September as well to call on participation from other groups and individuals.  Any donations large or small are most welcome as well as volunteer participation, either on committees and planning 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 and acceptance toward each other.  Their capacity for humour, song, dance and friendship in the face of their difficulties was a great strength that we in Australia can learn from.
Finally I’d like to thank the AAE group in Haiti and in Australia and the Permafund Committee for all their support and goodwill in this project. It was an incredible experience to return to the island. The memories of 2002 have troubled me for the past 13 years. Why do we allow such circumstances to exist?

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