Lack of Trees, Farmers' Groups Hinder Haiti

Aid groups call for peasant cooperatives and new farm practices to reverse rural poverty

ON tiny plots of land perched on mountain slopes, Haiti's peasants scratch out a worsening existence.

The more they cultivate, the more their thin soil erodes. The more children they have, the more this over-populated countryside suffers. Changes to this equation exist, development and agricultural experts agree, but they involve changing hearts and minds rather than fields and fertilizer.

``A lot of the physical problems are tied into social problems,'' says Ron Bluntschli, an agronomist who has spent many years working with Haitian peasants. ``Being uneducated, they have never been able to adapt.''

Fortunately, there are some villages where conditions have begun to change. Here in Dekosye, a small village in the country's northwestern mountains, Lucusevere Decius walks through sorghum plants to show off the bottom of a ravine.

``At first this was very deep,'' says Mr. Decius, a farmer who serves as a program monitor to help other farmers.

Three years ago, he built a rock wall to retain the soil. Then, he built other rock walls, reinforced with newly planted trees, until today his sloping field has 10 soil-conservation barriers and far better yields.

The results are impressive. Instead of averaging a harvest totaling 10 marmites, he brings in 40 to 50, he says. (A marmite a ceramic pot about the size of a can of paint.) But the program, sponsored by the Free Methodist Church and assisted in technical matters by the Mennonite Central Committee, has had a limited reach.

While Decius and the program's other monitors are taking advantage of the new methods, most of the farmers they are supposed to teach have not. Only about 80 families in the valley have taken part in this program.

The reason is that the new systems require more work. ``The farmers are more resistant,'' says Pady Isaac, an agricultural assistant with the Free Methodist program. ``The traditional systems are easier.''

Key to changing the peasants' attitudes are the creation of new peasant organizations and the reformation of older groups, forced to disband because of military repression.

Haiti's rulers have rarely, if ever, supported widespread rural development. But during the last three years, official neglect turned to actual repression as the ruling generals, who seized power in 1991, persecuted leaders of rural organizations because they might constitute a political threat.

With the return of democratic rule, rural Haitians can organize again. Peasant leaders are returning to the countryside.

Development officials from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to independent church groups agree that rural cooperatives need to form so that farmers can have access to low-cost credit, seed, and supplies in bigger, lower-priced volumes.

While some agronomists, such as Mr. Bluntschli, prefer these small-scale efforts, other development officials are eager for larger projects.

To the east of Dekosye, in the town of Pignon, a Haitian-American doctor returned to Haiti in 1983 to build a local hospital that now has a $1 million annual budget. The hospital has served as a catalyst for other projects and organizations here: a well-drilling program, a youth club, 55 women's clubs, and a small reforestation project.

Reforestation is key to Haiti's rural recovery because the soil erodes down mountain sides without the trees. A century ago, an estimated 40 to 50 percent of Haiti had forest cover. Today, only 2 percent does. And the situation is worsening.

USAID estimates average Haitians use six trees a year for fuel or contruction, far outstripping the reforestation capacity of aid organizations. Large-scale reforestation projects closed down after the military's 1991 coup.

The project at Pignon is the only one left in the northern part of the country, says Neil Van Dine, a community-action administrator in Pignon. It sold 20,000 to 25,000 trees this year to peasants at a subsidized price. But that is only one tenth of the trees that a Pan American Development Foundation project used to give away in this area.

Controlling erosion and boosting production are only part of the solution to the rural crisis. Another problem is land ownership. Most farmers don't have legal title to their land and, thus, cannot buy and sell property to create larger, more economically viable farms.

``When you buy a piece of land, you are never quite sure that you have clear title to it,'' says Morgan Gilbert, acting head of USAID's office of economic growth in Haiti. ``That's a fairly fundamental legal problem that's going to have to be resolved.''

Eventually, development officials agree, fewer people should be farming Haiti's over-burdened mountains. But how to accomplish this is the subject of some debate.

Some aid organizations such as USAID and the World Bank want to intensify cash-crop production in the plains and cut back the food grown locally in the mountains.

Others think that the small-scale Dekosye project - which boosts production now in the hopes that in a few years a better-fed, better-educated peasant can leave the farm to find a manufacturing or other nonagricultural job - is more successful.

Within four or five generations, says the agronomist in Haiti, ``this country will not support these populations in the hilly areas.''

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