By Adrienne Wiebe
“We are working for life against forces of death.” “Planting trees is giving life.” “Change happens as we heal from our slave past, and restore dignity and pride in ourselves.” More than a month after a visit to Haiti with an MCC Advocacy Delegation in August this year, I can still hear the voices of the people I met.
Haiti has been at the centre of world news because of the devastating earthquake that struck the capital city, Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, killing 230,000 people, leaving one-million people homeless, and destroying much of the city’s infrastructure and economy. The primary purpose the trip was to explore the advocacy issues in the aftermath of the earthquake. However, I got a glimpse of a country that is much more than the most recent political or natural disaster that we hear about on the news.
“Beyond the mountains are more mountains” is a well-known Haitian proverb describing a country that is seemingly more mountainous than Switzerland. This lush, tropical island was known as the “Pearl of the Antilles” during the 1700s; the richest French territory in the New World. Sugar and coffee were produced by a brutally efficient economy based on slaves imported from Africa after the indigenous population had been exterminated. Yet by the 1980s, this bountiful land was environmentally ravaged; 98% of the land has been deforested as a result of an impoverished population in need of cooking fuel and land to cultivate for food. Deforestation has caused severe loss of topsoil, declining agricultural productivity, and increased flooding and landslides.
Jean Remy Azor, Reforestation Program Coordinator of a project that MCC has supported since 1983, is working to change this situation, one tree at a time.
“We all have an obligation, especially Christians, to repair the destruction that we have brought about in God’s creation. Birds and animals live on the earth and haven’t damaged it; we humans have done the damage. So in this sense, planting trees is giving life. ” The 22 communities involved in the program Remy coordinates now produce and plant approximately 450,000 years per year. This part of the Artibonite Valley has become a delicious green oasis in contrast to the surrounding barren hills.
Nixon Boumba, an energetic advocacy worker with MCC and a university student, told me about Haiti’s powerful history. His determination to continue to work for change is evident despite the fact that he lost hundreds of classmates in the earthquake as university buildings collapsed, and his family still lives in a makeshift shelter with no running water seven months after the disaster.
Boumba situates Haiti’s current situation within a broader historical context. “The whole history of Haiti is a confrontation with imperialism – Spanish colonialism, French colonialism, slavery, racism, American occupation [1915-1934] and now neo-liberal economic and political systems…The slave rebellion against France and becoming the first black independent country  was of extraordinary significance on the world stage,” says Boumba. He points out that Haiti set the stage for the independence movements of other Latin American countries in the early 1800s and was a critical influence in dismantling slavery in the United States.
More recently, Haiti set a precedent in Latin America as the only country that had the audacity to twice elect a former priest with a liberation theology perspective, President (Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and 2001). He advocated a “preferential option for the poor” and his government strove to move Haiti from “from absolute misery to a dignified poverty.” Aristide was also twice removed violently from office (1994, 2004), a common fate of Latin American leaders who attempt to change the status quo. Despite setbacks, Boumba believes that: “We Haitians [need to] continue working for life against forces of death.”
Haiti has a predominantly Black population, and the dynamics of racism and social class that exist throughout Latin America are intensified here. A social hierarchy continues to exist in Haiti that privileges light skin over dark skin, and foreign over local. For example, Haitian Creole is based on 18th Century French mixed with African and Ameri-Indian languages, Arabic, and Spanish. It is spoken by 90% of Haitians. Yet until about 20 years ago, French was the only official language and was used in the educational system, the media, and the government. French is still viewed widely as the only language of status, though only a small percentage of Haitians speak French fluently.
This social history continues to impact Haiti today, according to Ari Nicolas, Coordinator of MCC partner organization, Kore Pwodiksyon Lokal/Support Local Production, (KPL). Nicolas thinks that Haitians have internalized a sense of inferiority. “Haitians are raised to believe that they are inferior. This is a product of being slaves. For 500 years we have been taught this. Whatever comes from outside is better. For example, our hair is not good because it is black and curly, not blond and straight. There is a lack of self-confidence and pride.” Nicolas works to promote the consumption of local food and goods, as a means of rebuilding a sustainable local economy, but also as a means of “creating a new mentality [and] a new society.”
Walking through a noisy street market with Junya Eugene and Margaret Baron, also staff members of KPL, they explains how Haiti has gone from being basically self-sufficient in food production to dependent on imported food in just twenty years. This is partly because trade liberalization imposed by international financial institutions has made imported (and subsidized) American food cheaper than locally grown food, putting farmers out of business. Two live chickens that will eventually be our lunch dangle upside-down from my fingers as we check out rice prices: Locally produced rice costs 1.5 times more than imported American rice.
Haitian lack of self-confidence and pride is part of the problem, according to KPL staff. Imported American rice and other foods are widely viewed as superior to Haitian rice and traditional foods. For example, Haitians say they do not eat corn, but they love eating Corn Flakes. In response, KPL has produced a dramatic series of videos filmed in the market that are regularly aired on national television to demonstrate the importance of purchasing local goods and services.
Haiti has the unenviable distinction of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. An estimated 80% of Haitians live on less than $2 per day. Health indicators are the poorest in Latin America. Life expectancy is 61 years in Haiti compared to 82 years in Canada and 78 in the USA. Over 12% of children die before the age of 5 years old, compared to less than 2% in Canada and the USA. Adult literacy is 53%, and parents struggle to pay private school fees because of destruction of the public education system due cuts to government spending on service imposed by the international financial institutions in the 1990s.
“The earthquake exacerbated the pre-existing problems of housing, security, and food,” according to Antonal Mortime , Executive Secretary of POHDH (Plat-forme des Organisations Haitiennes des Droits Humains/Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations). Haitian activists, like Mortime, have an integrated view of human rights that includes political rights as well as social rights, such as the right to food, education, and housing. For Mortime post-earthquake reconstruction is an opportunity to build a more equitable society. ”Our priority is now to advocate internationally regarding social rights, such as education and food, and to create a base to launch a new Haiti.”
Rosy Auguste and Vilès Alizar, at RNDDH (Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains/National Human Rights Defense Network) also emphasized the need for profound change in the reconstruction process. According to Alizar, “The word ‘reconstruction’ for Haitians, is not about rebuilding the National Palace and individual houses, rather it is about building a new Haiti with everything, services, schools, and so on… what would redeem the earthquake would be to construct a new society. The priority now is decentralization and participation.”
Many Haitian civil society organizations stressed the need for decentralization in the reconstruction process because all services tend to be concentrated in Port-au-Prince. Haitians must come to the city for everything: schooling beyond elementary levels, documentation (i.e. land titles, driver’s licences), other government services and jobs. As a result, thousands of people have migrated to the city, though the urban infrastructure cannot support the current population. The earthquake’s impact was all the more devastating because of over-crowding and lack of quality building construction.
“The earthquake not only shook the earth, but also the hearts and minds of people… not only on January 12, but they are still shaking,” says Jean Valéry Vital-Herne, the National Coordinator for Defi Miche/Micah Challenge, another MCC partner organization. “If the church would stand strong for six months, we would have a social earthquake.” Vital-Herne recognizes the challenges for Protestants, Catholics and spiritualists, practitioners of Vodou, to work together. Vodou is a belief system based on a syncretism of the African culture brought by slaves and historic Catholicism. Catholicism has been the official religion of the country since 1860, and Protestant churches have been established in Haiti for about 100 years. Vital-Herne thinks that, “The church is Haiti has been a conformist church… but it needs to be an alternative; be the light of the world, and salt of the earth.” Most importantly for me as a foreigner, Vital-Herne asked that, “the global church stand in solidarity with Haiti and respect the Haitian vision.”
What sticks with me, weeks after my visit, is that for five centuries, Haiti has experienced the destructive impacts of the major global developments: colonialism, racism, environmental exploitation, unequal economic growth, and, most recently, devastating natural disasters exacerbated by poverty. Despite all this, I discovered that there is much more to Haiti than just the latest crisis, and there are many, many Haitians who are working to build a more life-giving society . I hope that we as North Americans listen to what they are telling us, learn from them, and walk with them as they continue to work “for life against the forces of death.”
Adrienne Wiebe is MCC’s policy analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean.