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Archive for January, 2011

Ekorural, a Groundswell partner organization based in Ecuador, along with Wageningen University’s Communication and Innovation Studies Group, and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences recently won a grant from WOTRO, a division of The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research that supports scientific research on development issues, in particular poverty alleviation and sustainable development.

The project partners will explore how scientific insights can strengthen and complement the most promising positive deviance (i.e., uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies of farmers that enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite having no special resources or knowledge) in ways that address both people’s immediate and long term needs. Among other things, the work will seek to develop and test methodologies to identify and strengthen positive deviance in resource poor households that effectively respond to food security priorities. Building on earlier studies and recent stakeholder consultations, the project will focus on positive deviance in two strategic areas for enabling farming families to defeat poverty and hunger:

  • Creative utilization of water for food production in the context of growing climate variability; and
  • Strategic utilization of food production for family nutrition, in particular for assuring the health and well-being of vulnerable mothers and infants.

The re-positioning of agricultural science around endogenous potential in Ecuador holds global implications. The food crisis and growing international interest in local food as a means to addressing resource constraints and climate change guarantee that this project will be closely followed by serious foodies.

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On a mountain top several hours north of Port-au-Prince, twenty-five rural villages have organized themselves and are working hard to improve their lives.  By doing so, they are helping to lay one block in the foundation for Haiti’s future.  In spite of the earthquake, cholera and the political uncertainty created by recent flawed elections, they are making good progress.  The “Peasant Organization for the Development of the 8th Communal Section of Arcahaie” (OPD-8) has defined a simple but radical vision for their organization:  “To make our communities a good place for people to live.”  Such a vision for rural areas should guide the wider recovery process in Haiti.

Members of OPD-8 doing a training skit on sustainable agriculture.

Members of OPD-8 doing a training skit on sustainable agriculture.

Haiti’s historical legacy is one of destructive centralization. From the days of colonialism and plantation slavery until today, the political and economic center based in Port-au-Prince has drained resources from rural areas rather than promoting development there.  Over time this led to deforestation and dramatic erosion of soils, lowered food production and impoverished rural communities.  As fertile soil washed towards the sea, rural people followed – migrating to Port-au-Prince and other cities to live in terrible conditions.  When the earthquake struck, many of them were the most vulnerable and were killed or injured.

Earthquakes cannot be prevented.  Neither can the hurricanes that come each year.  And Haiti will continue to be dealt other blows beyond its control.  Cholera was introduced a few months ago and has become an epidemic.  At the global level, the UN is currently reporting dangerous increases in food prices, just as occurred in 2008 and led to food riots that brought down Haiti’s prime minister.  But the underlying rural poverty and soil erosion that makes the Haitian people so vulnerable to these shocks can be prevented and overcome.

Haiti remains predominantly rural and agricultural, with over 60% of the population depending on family farming.  Haiti’s peasant farmers work tiny, scattered parcels of land, often on eroded mountainsides, and live on one or two dollars a day.  But the families of OPD-8 have been working for over 12 years to conserve their soil, diversify their farms, and increase their food production.  So when the food prices spiked in 2008 and hunger rose in the cities, these communities had food reserves.  When the earthquake struck a year ago, they housed, fed and supported hundreds of people who fled the death and destruction in the cities.  Since cholera has broken out, they have prevented deaths by teaching families how to purify water and treat the sick.

Improving rural lives starts with strong local organizations that increase agriculture and food production.  This requires peasant farmers to engage in a way of farming that works for them – sustainable agriculture – as most industrial farming practices and inputs are not appropriate.  Farmers conserve and improve their soil, carry out seed selection to improve local varieties, improve storage to reduce losses to pests, diversify crops to spread risks, and process crops locally to add value. They experiment on their farms to see what works, and then teach successful practices to neighboring families and villages.  All of these activities improve lives and strengthen local initiative, confidence and organization.  In other words, they build Haiti’s economic and environmental foundation through a decentralized, democratic process of citizen participation.

The good news is that there are hundreds of examples of local peasant organizations similar to OPD-8 all over rural Haiti.  They are already creating and spreading this way of sustainable farming and decentralized development.  Many of these organizations are linked to regional and national networks of peasant organizations that coordinate actions and amplify their voices.  For years we have worked to support and strengthen local peasant organizations like these.  This experience leads us, and many others, to believe that within 10 years it is possible for rural Haitians to conserve and improve Haiti’s soils, to once again produce the food and seeds the country needs, and to raise rural incomes from one dollar to five or ten dollars a day.

Haiti needs many big changes to help make this happen:  a legitimate and effective government; a better response to one million people still living in tent camps; and trade and development policies that support rather than undercut national food production.  Many of these challenges are not new.  But Haiti’s six million peasants cannot afford to sit and wait for the solutions to be designed in Port-au-Prince.  Many peasant organizations have been working hard for years to create the communities they envision for themselves and their children.  Haiti’s peasant groups are arguably among the country’s most functional organizations and important assets.  They are an engine for increasing local production and raising rural living standards.  International and national development efforts should invest in them and involve them in decision making to create the broad economic, environmental and political foundation upon which to build the future.

By Cantave Jean-Baptiste, Director, Partenariat pour le Développement Local, Haiti, and Steve Brescia, International Director, Groundswell International, Washington, DC

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