Fritznel Octave, Radio Voice of the Far West, Port-de-Paix, Haiti.
As demonstrated by church leaders in the Parish of St. Mary, 52 kms from the city of Kingston, Capital of Jamaica, as well as on the Central Plateau, 137 kms from Port-au-prince, Capital of Haiti, religious congregations can collaborate with peasants in the Caribbean to help them change their conditions of living.
Seven years ago, Jesuit Fathers from Canada established an agricultural cooperative system in the Parish of St. Mary. Their goal was to help the peasants of the region organize themselves in order to improve their living conditions. The system is composed of 4 cooperatives: Long Road Cooperative, Belfield Cooperative, Fort George Cooperative and Group # 41 located in the community of Annotto Bay.
Before 1991, peasants in St. Mary used to be exploited by retailers. Moreover, they generally did not have the means needed to produce the way they should. They have always been confronted with a lack of financial support. Further, irrigation is needed to increase their level of production. Now things are getting better. The efforts of the Jesuit Fathers in St. Mary, along with support from the Canadian Church allow most of the peasants plowing the soil to take a deep breath.
These low income farmers have found technical assistance: seeds. And now it is the managers of the cooperatives who usually buy the crops from the peasants and then carry them to the city. The peasants in St. Mary reap several kinds of crops, among them: plantains, bananas, fruits and vegetables. For the time being, it is the plantain market that is soaring. “The demand of the local market gets up to 16,000 pounds weekly. But we can only produce 4,000 lbs. We are striving to increase our level of production to meet the demand of the market in the coming months”, according to Winston Mills, an agronomist working in the programme since 1997. Agronomist Mills informs that they are doing their best to meet the demand of the international market too.
What relationship has this with the Central Plateau?
In the beginning of the 1980s, in Thomonde and Pandyasou in the Central Plateau in Haiti, peasants were confronted with almost the same situation. High cost of living, lack of production and drought. Besides, most of the peasants did not have any soil to plough. Their youngsters could not attend school. Neither could they afford go off to Hinche (the main city of the Central Plateau) or to Port-au-Prince, to learn skills and professions.
Father Leveque Bien-Aimé arrived in Thomonde in 1983. He developed the idea to help the peasants organize themselves in a cooperative in order to achieve better living conditions. The church purchased 40 acres of land to let the peasants plough for themselves free of charge. Most of this soil has been used to cultivate sugar cane, since this is the principal crop of Thomonde. Afterwards, sugar cane is transformed into rapadou (Haitian raw sugar) which is used as a sweetener. The rapadou market is very significant for the economy of the area. Most of its inhabitants can only get a job in the sugar cane fields and at the sugar cane mills.
Before the cooperative programme, the peasants were being exploited by haves, millowners and landowners. Nowadays, these peasants own their own piece of land and three modern mills to transform the sugar cane into rapadou. Before having their own mills, about 30 to 35 % of their production used to go to the big millowners’ pockets. Now, they pay 15% at the most, to cover maintenance fees as well as provide funding to the school “Jean Baptiste Decoste” that has been serving the community since 1988.
In the locality of Pandyasou (7 kms from the town of Hinche), the congragation of the Incarnation Brothers has been working together with the peasants since 1977. The congragation has established a good running programme of agriculture, reforestation, health services, education and housing to enable the peasants of the region to live differently. Youngsters can find support to study and learn a profession. And further, the congragation assists in leading them into the job market.
In the field of agriculture, the brothers have looked for a way to solve the drought problem, which used to prevent the peasants of Pandyasou from plowing the soil during all seasons. They developed a system of lakes that enables everybody to find enough water to irrigate their crops throughout the year. Besides, the brothers have established many transformation plants of agricultural products in the area.
The biggest problems of peasants in the Caribbean is that good soil to plough is hard to find and their being exploited. In Pandyasou and Thomonde the Church has participated in purchasing land for the peasants to plough. There are other areas such as the Artibonite in Haiti, where the government has just started distributing public land to peasants. In St. Mary, Jamaica, farmers in the mountains went down to take possession of state lands in the plains. This began thanks to the efforts of 4 peasants from the Annotto Bay community in 1997. Now many peasants are taking advantage of the same experience. For many, working conditions have completely changed during but one year.
Exploitation of peasants is not solely based on the relations between the haves and the have-nots, retailers and peasants within Caribbean countries only. It also has to do with relations between countries. In Haiti, peasants and craftsmen are the victims of already used products from overseas. For example, products from the Dominican Republic have invaded the Haitian market without any control. Similarly, Jamaican peasants are subjected to invasion of American products.
During 1997 and 1998, Info-Services, the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) and the Panos Institute have implemented training seminars for Haitian journalists in reporting on community development issues in the Caribbean region. This article was produced during this training.