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I read with interest what Mr. Antoine has written about Pandiassou in Windows on Haiti, as it corroborates my own research on the topic. The following was written as part of a class project and consequently it was intended for a different audience than a Haitian forum. I beg you to allow me to reproduce it here for any good idea that may come out of it. To be honest, I must say that this was an academic exercise and not the fruit of first-hand experience or seeing with my own eyes. The day will come.
The small Caribbean nation of Haiti is facing an environmental crisis due to deforestation and soil erosion, but there is still reason to hope that things can change for the better.
More than two thirds of all Haitians live in rural farming communities. Population pressure and expansion of crop cultivation have accelerated the process of deforestation and erosion, resulting in a decline in agricultural production and virtual elimination of the forest cover.
Without tree roots to hold the soil in place, it washes away in the heavy tropical rains. The silt from runoff causes additional problems, such as harming marine life and impairing the performance of hydroelectric dams. The poor harvests cause the farmers to turn to the burning of charcoal production to make ends meet, thereby sacrificing more trees.
Another serious consequence of deforestation is drought, which turns the land into desert and adds to the misery of people who can barely eke out a living. What is happening in Haiti is similar to what is happening in many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where deforestation and soil erosion have wrought havoc with agriculture-based societies.
The settlement of Pandiassou is located in the Central Plateau of Haiti, near the city of Hinche. In Pandiassou, the Congregation of Little Brothers and Sisters of the Incarnation (in French, Congregation des Petits Frères et Soeurs de l'Incarnation) devote themselves to a mission based on action towards the socio-economic development of the peasantry. Brother Francklin Armand founded this religious order twenty-five years ago. Their philosophy is that resignation and exploitation are obstacles to the holiness of the Gospel, and that misery and the Gospel cannot coexist.
The congregation's first challenge was to help the peasants feed themselves, and later on to get away from the traditional practice of food aid. At the time, Pandiassou was suffering much the same fate as other agricultural regions in Haiti, and farming was neglected due to the drought. Even small trees were cut down and thrown into the furnace for charcoal production, the most important economic subsistence resource of the Central Plateau. CPFSI made agricultural production a top priority in order to achieve its larger goals. “Even in a good year, a hardworking farmer could only earn about $70 an acre from the single annual harvest.”
CPFSI worked with the farmers to develop an agricultural system for larger properties where they would tend a large piece of land as a community rather than each tending his own tiny plot. This is part of a system called “kombitism”, which is very much a part of Haitian culture. (A “kombit” is a gathering of the community to help a farmer work the land or harvest crops, not unlike an Amish barn raising.) In this way they could greatly increase the efficiency of agricultural production. This also points up a difference between Pandiassou and other, less successful, cooperative projects: the peasants are made a part of the planning process; therefore they understand the reasoning and the ideas behind what they are doing.
The turning point in the project came when, with the help of a grant from the European Commission, a system of reservoirs was created to catch the rainwater. There are two seasons in the Central Plateau: the rainy season and the dry season. Traditionally, the farmers of the region would work the land during the rainy season, reap their harvest, and then wait out the dry season until the rains came back. This system became too precarious to sustain as the deforestation problem worsened. The artificial lakes hold water that enables the farmers to irrigate the fields with electric pumps. In this way the long waiting period during the dry season is eliminated and the farmers can have up to three harvests per year instead of one. This has improved their material condition immensely.
Brother Armand traveled to the U.S. in the spring of 2002 and gave a presentation and slide show on Pandiassou. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the meeting and I saw the “before” and “after” pictures of the region around the lakes. The difference was amazing – where the landscape had consisted of scrubby grass and bare hills, there were small trees and everything was green.
The vision of CPFSI is not limited to agriculture. The lakes are stocked with thousands of fish (5,400 fry were introduced at the beginning of 1998) and the cooperative invested in a freezer facility to store freshly caught fish to sell to the surrounding communities. Pandiassou has become one of the most important sources of agricultural products and fish for the markets of Hinche.
The community has an agricultural training center which helps the farmers develop their own techniques for preparing natural fertilizers, or processing and conserving their produce.
CPFSI also founded a classic and vocational school to provide a formal education for the children of Pandiassou. The classic section starts with kindergarten and includes the first four years of secondary school. In the vocational training section, which starts in the first year of high school, the youngsters can choose from skills such as agriculture, shoemaking, cabinetmaking, masonry, carpentry, electronics, cooking and pastry.
For the adults, there is a literacy program where they learn to read and write in Kreyol. For those who can already read and write, there are opportunities to learn a foreign language (Spanish, French, or English), agricultural techniques, principles of Haitian Law and Economics.
As a result of the success at Pandiassou, CPFSI joined with the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture in a project to build fifty lakes in the Northeast of the country. They have started building artificial lakes in the Northwest as well, a region that has been especially hard hit by erosion and desertification due to long-term drought. Sadly, the Northwest region has seen famine claim the lives of over a thousand people. Brother Armand has stated that his ultimate goal is to build two thousand artificial lakes all around Haiti.
I believe that the settlement of Pandiassou can serve as a model to the rest of the developing world because the local people are treated with respect, they are involved in the decision making process, and the vision of the project is long-term. I would love to see such a model put in place in some of the harder-hit regions of Africa. Pandiassou truly gives hope to the world.