Archive for February, 2011

Madamm Fransura, of a village near Bahon, Haiti, showing bean seed her community organization saved from the last harvest.

Madamm Fransura, of a village near Bahon, Haiti, showing bean seed her community organization saved from the last harvest.

Last week I visited Haiti for the first time. As we flew into Port-au-Prince the devastation was plain to see. On the ground it was visceral; crumbling buildings and sprawling tent camps were constant reminders of the earthquake’s terrible power.

But just as I thought I would be mired in thoughts of destruction and the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding that lies ahead, the Haitian people pushed my thoughts from dark contemplation toward hope for what is possible. This happened to me half a dozen times during the trip. I found myself worrying for Haiti’s future and then I was suddenly hopeful, because I saw people clearing away rubble slowly but surely with their bare hands, farmers growing thousands of trees to reforest their naked hills, rural people organizing to limit the spread of the cholera epidemic and restore fertility to their land.

We spent most of our time in the countryside learning about Partnership for Local Development’s (PLD) programs and working with PLD staff on their monitoring and evaluation system. We met with two of PLD’s current partner organizations, the Peasant Movement of Saint Michel in Artibonite Department and Bailly in the district of Bahon in the North Department, as well as an emerging peasant organization in Saint Raphael and the Peasant Organization of La Victoire, a strong, long-time local partner in North Department that is now helping other communities to organize. The last day we met with like-minded NGOs to explore ways we might work together. Next week I will post a full report on the trip and its outcomes.

Representatives of various communities near Pignon, Haiti filling soil bags for tree seedlings. This nursery will produce 5,000 trees every year.

Representatives of various communities near Pignon, Haiti, filling soil bags for tree seedlings. This nursery will produce 5,000 trees every year.

When I got on the plane to go to Haiti I was not sure what to expect. I knew the trip would challenge my ideas, about Haiti, about how development works (or doesn’t work), and about many other things. It did, but more importantly it inspired new ideas and it cemented in my mind a new vision for Haiti and for humanity based on solidarity and sustainable, people-centered action.

Cantave Jean Baptiste, PLD’s National Coordinator, is one of the main architects of this new vision, so it is fitting that I use a metaphor to describe it that he shared with us on our last day in Haiti:

In our approach, when we strengthen local organizations, we are not trying to just plant ‘annual crops’ but to plant and grow a strong tree that can continue to give life and fruit for the long term. We have to nurture the young seedling with a lot of intense care and support at the beginning – to water it, give it organic matter, and make sure the animals don’t eat it. Then when it is a young tree we provide less support but continue to make sure it can grow strong and bear fruit.  And then when it is strong and can flourish, we leave it to grow on its own.  We continue a relationship and a connection, but the goal is that the tree, the local organization, is growing strong on its own, without us, and is giving fruit and life to the community for many, many years. And we are seeing that this approach works.”

Seeing Cantave and PLD on the ground using this approach with the team’s local partners leaves little doubt that they will reach their goal of helping 340,000 more Haitians (through 20 peasant organizations) launch and sustain their own processes of local development.

I have said this before, but it warrants saying again. There is hope for Haiti, it is the Haitians.

By Christopher Sacco, Groundswell Program Officer

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Last month the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) made two grants to Groundswell for our work in Haiti.

The first grant, titled “Strengthening the Capacity and Resilience of Rural Communities and Peasant Organizations”, will allow Groundswell and its local Haitian partner organization, PLD, to strengthen local leadership and capacity of six nascent peasant organizations to sustainably improve agricultural production, livelihoods, savings and credit, health and natural resources management.  More specifically, with AJWS support, Groundswell and PLD are working to:

  • Strengthen organizational capacity and leadership development with six peasant organizations through a practical “learning by doing” approach. Organizations will be strengthened from a capacity level of 1 to 3 (on a 1-5 capacity) scale within three years;
  • Sustainably increase agricultural production of 3,500 farmers by 75 percent and the food security of 3,500 families;
  • Improve natural resources management and disaster risk reduction among six peasant organizations;
  • Improve health and nutrition of 2,000 families that are members of the six peasant organizations; and
  • Develop improved livelihood strategies and income and services generating programs in six peasant organizations.

AJWS support comes at a critical time for rural Haiti because while significant international aid to Haiti has been promised, not much has actually been delivered, and generally there is limited international support planned for rural areas like those where Groundswell and PLD work. We believe it is necessary to promote decentralized development in Haiti and to revitalize rural areas as a foundation for the county’s future.  While this has long been an important strategy, it is even more vital after the January 12 earthquake’s destruction of urban centers and their questionable prospects for the future. The most effective way to foster resilience and sustainable rural development is by strengthening peasant organizations’ capacity to lead it themselves, which is precisely the goal of the work AJWS is supporting with this grant.

The second grant, titled “Strengthening the Health Response of Community Based Organizations to Cholera”, will provide lifesaving assistance to rural people suffering from the cholera epidemic while building the long-term capacity of community based organizations to address the epidemic through water treatment training, the construction of latrines, and the development of community health committees. AJWS funds are allowing us to:

  • Strengthen the capacities of PLD health staff and resources in former, current and new program areas;
  • Develop appropriate education program and teaching materials for community health promoters and community health structures;
  • Train new community health promoters and promotes new community health structures in new program areas;
  • Link local promoters and community health structures to existing health services providers;
  • Support the access of communities to safe water (water filters) and appropriate sanitation infrastructure (latrines);
  • Provide antibiotics and rehydration fluid to clinics, dispensaries or hospitals serving populations in the Groundswell/PLD program areas; and
  • Provide oral rehydration kits, Clorox and other water treatment materials to trained local promoters and community health structures.

This grant complements the broader capacity building support made possible by the first grant by helping Haitian communities learn how to reduce the risks they face from cholera. If they do not, the disease may well erode the hard fought gains they are making. The connections between resiliency, sustainable local economies, and healthy communities and the determinants of health and disaster vulnerability form an intricate weave that demands a holistic approach and intersectoral collaboration that builds on shared strengths in pursuit of common outcomes, such as healthy people, and which contribute to the overall goal of creating resilient and vibrant communities. This idea is at the core of Groundswell’s holistic, people-centered approach.

Next week (February 13 – 19) Groundswell will be in Haiti to learn about these and other initiatives being implemented by our partner PLD. We will post updates to our Facebook page and Twitter as often as we can. Please follow our visit to Haiti!

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Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet

"Africa’s Soil Fertility Crisis and the Coming Famine" appears in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011

“In Koboko Village in Malawi in September 2009, some 30 mothers and their children were gathering under a huge shade tree—the traditional site for the village’s meetings. Gradually they squeezed together on an assortment of hand-woven mats and rough-hewn wooden chairs. The village chief and a few of his advisors faced the women, seated next to an outsider who was there to ask a series of questions. “What,” the outsider began, “is the most important single problem that prevents you from having enough food to feed your children well?”

Without even waiting for a village male authority to answer, one of the taller women spoke up: “Our soil is tired out. And it’s getting worse every year.” Almost before she had finished, four or five other women chimed in, all talking at once: “Yes, what she says is true.” “Last year I harvested 35 bags of maize. But this year I only harvested 27, even though it rained well.” “We no longer have any way to keep our fields fertile.” “Our soil has become so hard that even when it rains, the water just runs off.” When things died down again, the village chief, calmly and authoritatively, put his stamp of approval on the obvious consensus by voicing his heart-felt agreement.

The visitor was surprised. Malawi, just five years earlier, had suffered one of Africa’s worst droughts ever. People became so hungry that they were cooking up and eating the bark off of trees. Millions would have died if tons of emergency food had not been distributed throughout the country. Yet in this village, everyone concurred that soil fertility was an even greater problem than drought. The outsider asked why. The women explained that, sure, the droughts had been horrible. But droughts had only occurred a couple of times in more than a decade, whereas soil fertility was threatening to destroy their food supply permanently—forever.

The women were absolutely unanimous, as were the men. They were adamant. And they were obviously scared. Even though they were among the planet’s poorest people, they had never in their lives faced such a long-term and apparently insoluble threat to their survival. Over the next year, as part of two major studies, interviews were conducted with farmers from more than 75 villages in six African nations (Malawi and Zambia in Southern Africa, Kenya and Uganda in East Africa, and Mali and Niger in West Africa). With very few exceptions the same story was repeated everywhere. People no longer had any way of maintaining soil fertility. Harvests were crashing, dropping 15–25 percent a year. Most people expect that in five years they will harvest less than half what they get now. Yet they are already in desperate straits. Some villages now depend permanently on food aid. Whole villages are planning to uproot themselves and wander across the landscape looking for fertile land, a reasonable survival strategy back when Africa was not so full of people. But today, in most of Africa it is a strategy with very little chance of success.

That Africa is facing a soil fertility crisis is no news to the well-informed. But that the tragedy is rushing at us so quickly that tens of millions of people could starve within the next four or five years is big news indeed. The continent faces an imminent tragedy: a Great African Famine.”

This is the introduction to the article titled “Africa’s Soil Fertility Crisis and the Coming Famine”, by Roland Bunch, world renowned agroecologist, author of Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement, and Mali Program Coordinator for Groundswell International.

The full text of the article may be found in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.

The findings of the Nourishing the Planet project were gathered over the course of a year spent researching on the ground in 25 sub-Saharan African countries, and the book draws on these experiences and hundreds of innovations that are already working to outline 20 proven, environmentally sustainable prescriptions for alleviating hunger and poverty. With the global food and agriculture crisis reaching dangerous new heights, there is no time to waste: read the State of the World 2011 to learn how the world’s leading agricultural thinkers, including Groundswell’s Roland Bunch, are working with farmers to ensure a sustainable, healthy future for Africa.

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