Pigs and Community Organizing
In the 1980's the USA demanded that Haiti destroy all its pigs in a misguided effort to control swine flu. Unfortunately, this mandate destroyed the savings for many Haitian peasants. In Haiti a pig is like a savings bank. A family buys a piglet, raises it for a couple of years and then when they need extra money for tuition for their children or a medical emergency, they sell the fattened pig at market for a handy profit. When all the pigs were destroyed, many families lost their savings and have had difficulty recovering economically ever since.
Members of the Peasant Organization of Garat (OPG) were facing poverty and decided they wanted to return to pig husbandry as a way of increasing their families' economic level. They approached the Lambi Fund about starting a pig raising operation. They asked Lambi Fund to supply 36 pigs, a veterinary technician and leadership and organizational development training for the group. Key members were going to breed the pigs and share the offspring with other members.
The project was a success and the pigs helped the families develop financial security. One member said, "Before we were very poor. Now we have enough money to feed our families and even send our children to school. Our children have a hopeful future because they are going to school."
When they were starting the pig raising operation, Lambi Fund gave them lots of training on organizational development and community organizing. Meanwhile, the government dammed the river near them to build an electrical plant, but did not provide electricity to their village.
The leaders of OPG organized their 500 members, lobbied elected officials and pressured them to bring electricity to their village. They were very organized and persistent, and the government finally relented and brought electricity to their village. They have learned to use their organizing skills and improved economic conditions to advocate for a better life for themselves.
Mobile Pump and Land Rights
As migrants they earned "wages" of under a dollar a day, had no legal rights and lived in company-owned shacks on the margins of the huge sugar cane plantation. The Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO) offered the landless farmers little else. In the late 1980s the farmers of La Plen, Haiti formed a 500-member organization to consolidate their strength in the face of misery.
But HASCO shutdown. A weakened sugar market made imports more profitable for the company owners, and pressure from an emerging democratic movement demanding rights to illegally-owned land had become uncomfortable. Electricity was shut off, large water pumps disabled, irrigation ditches allowed to collapse and acres of fertile land were left fallow. Unable to access water for irrigation in the nearby River Griz, even those who had small plots of land could not farm. Starvation became epidemic. Left destitute, the new organization struggled. Efforts with western-based development agencies led to short-term fixes, followed by failure: a small school which closed down within one year; a children's feeding program that collapsed within eight months.
Ravaged by poverty, the farmers regrouped. Without land, water or food they simply would not survive. Organizers approached the Lambi Fund of Haiti and proposed a simple project: a small mobile water pump for irrigation. The project's budget was only $6,000. For four months the Lambi Fund's agronomists sat with the organization, listening, helping plan the project. Irrigation ditches were built and watering schedules were formulated. Finally, the pump arrived and the water flowed.
Only a few months' later vegetables, legumes and fruits were harvested. Hundred of farmers and market women were and remain engaged in business. The pump project is managed democratically and sustains itself through collective pump maintenance, diesel fuel purchase and equal use for all members. The project is ready to expand into five new areas. During a recent field visit, a planter shouted from his field: "We have succeeded!"
Two months into heavy harvests, armed thugs began harassing farmers with death threats. For years the area and the people dying there were ignored. Now those in power wanted the renewed land back, but without the peasants.
In response, the community appealed to the Haitian media and government mediators. Again they were organizing to defend their rights. By expanding the scope of this project and reproducing it elsewhere, the farmers sent a message of determination and resistance.
The history of the mobile pump is emblematic of the Lambi Fund's work in Haiti. It is the story of an organized movement in respectful partnership with an alternative development organization--together recognizing and addressing basic structural issues of inequality in Haiti.
Increasing Production, Improving Lives, Strengthening Solidarity
Two of biggest challenges Haitian peasants face are lack of access to credit and to storage facilities. Most cannot afford to build their own depots so they are forced to sell their crops to middlemen when the prices are at their lowest. Then, at planting time, they pay premium prices for seed. To make this investment in seeds and other inputs requires a large amount of capital upfront, leaving many farmers with no choice but to borrow from loan sharks, at interest rates as high as 20% per month. (That's 240% annually!)
The members of Oganizasyon Peyizan Bige (The Peasant Organization of Bige, a village in the Artibonite Valley) recognized the impossibility of this situation and approached the Lambi Fund for support of a dual grain storage and micro-credit project. Lambi Fund agreed to fund the project and, as with all our projects, began by organizing training seminars for the committees who would administer the activities. The monies granted by Lambi Fund were then used to repair a depot, purchase the sacks and tools needed to store the crops, and provide small loans to fifty members at only 12% annual interest. Once the harvests were in, the organization purchased grain from the members, again using funding from Lambi Fund of Haiti. Those who had taken out loans paid them back with grain equivalent in value to their principal, plus interest. All the grain was carefully dried and stored in the depot.
At planting time, the committees responsible for selling the grain called meetings of the membership to determine the price and timing of the sales. Members received a discount and could buy all they wanted, both to use for planting and for selling in the market as food. The remainder was sold to merchants outside the organization.
Despite a drought and competition from cheap imported food, OPB was able to turn a profit that first year by wisely diversifying the kinds of crops it bought and stored, which included corn, peanuts and millet.
As OPB's profits grew, so did its revolving loan fund. In the second year, 57 farmers accessed the micro-loans, and the pay back rate was 100%.
The synergy of the project works beautifully: farmers with access to credit can plant more, so they then earn more money when they sell the grain to OPB. The organization makes a profit both on the loans and on the sale of the grain at planting time, which enables it to make more loans and to purchase more grain from the farmers. Having stored and sold tens of thousands of pounds of grain, OPB has made a concrete difference in supporting local agricultural production and enabling members to improve their standard of living.
The impact from this project doesn't end there. At a Lambi Fund training conference for local grassroots groups, OPB met another group which runs a Lambi-funded grain mill in a nearby village. The members of the two groups now patronize each other's projects.
Witnessing OPB's tremendous success, Lambi was encouraged to dialog further with the group about other community needs. OPB members defined access to drinking water as their community's major infrastructure need. They walk hours to the nearest springs or well to tote water back to their homes, or even use river water for drinking. Water-borne diseases are rampant, especially affecting children. Lambi Fund agreed to fund the construction of 15 cisterns which will serve 45 families. Having water near at hand will not only help members maintain their health, it will also free up time for the beneficiaries, which they can then dedicate to organizing and income-generating activities.
This story illustrates what can happen when efforts build on each other and various parts become a whole picture of community development. We say "Chapo ba!" ("Hats off!") to OPB, for increasing production, improving farmers' standard of living, and strengthening the grassroots movement.