Plight of Haitian farmers inspires efforts of U.S. churches

By Cindy Corell | Mission Co-worker Haiti

Pastor Jerome Altidor, a trainer with the National Peasants Congress Movement of Haiti, listens during a meeting with a Presbyterian delegation visit to Begin, Haiti in June 2017. Photo by Cindy Corell.

My job description defies easy explanation. I work with farmers’ organizations from all across Haiti. Together, the hundreds of groups – consisting from several hundred to many thousand members – form a Joining Hands network that advocates for a better life for Haitians.

The network, Hand to Hand Foundation of Haiti, is called FONDAMA by its Haitian Creole acronym. Each member organization is autonomous, meeting and responding to needs in its own communities, then also working in solidarity.

And the needs are great. Immediately, people need food, clean water and accessible quality health care. In the larger scope, FONDAMA advocates to respond to root causes of the country’s deep poverty: stop land-grabbing, support locally produced foods by minimizing imports and lobby for fair agrarian laws.

I can tell you the stories of these organizations in my words, but when a Presbyterian pastor in Ohio, the Rev. Shelley Wiley, wanted to know more, she took me up my offer to come see, to hear from the farmers themselves.

We were in a block building in Begin, Haiti, high in the mountains above the southern coast. The building is owned by the Fieffe Foundation, and we were visiting several farmers’ organizations that partner with this local foundation.

Jean Paul Brevil, an agronomist, is coordinator of Peyizan pou yon Nouvelle Kominite (Peasants for a New Community), a partner with FONDAMA. Brevil had gathered several local farmers’ organizations to share with us life in the mountain community.

The six American visitors sipped fresh coconut from the shells Jean Paul and others broke open for them with a machete. The coolness of the coconut water refreshed us as we listened to the Haitians speak.

They told us how they build and maintain roads, create and nurture gardens, provide financial support to families who suffer illness or lose loved ones. They seek out training opportunities for farmers. They work with one another in caring for the poorest.

And these are families who exist by buying and selling in the local markets, raising livestock and sacrificing to send their children to school.

The greatest need – by far – is for a community health center, Brevil said. When someone is ill, they must be transported down the mountain for more than an hour to the hospital in Jacmel.

After suffering under a four-year drought, southern Haiti has been deluged with rain even since Hurricane Matthew hit in early October. Gardens and other crops have been decimated.

And because they are so remote, when young people have the opportunity for vocational training, they remain in the cities rather than coming back home to help.

Pastor Jerome Altidor, a trainer with Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay, spoke of the earnest desire for the Haitian people — with support — to make a positive difference in their country.

A U.S. delegation in June visiting the Fieffe Foundation in Begin, Haiti, along with members of various grassroots farmer organizations. Photo by Cindy Corell.

Group member Ellen Coppley from Winston-Salem, N.C., later described her impressions of what she’d heard:

“They talked about how without the medical attention, they would die. Without the seeds, they would die. What did they need first? What could we do to help?” she said.

And Pastor Altidor’s speech stirred her to action, too.

“He spoke about how working together, they were unstoppable. He spoke of the way that only they could change Haiti. He pounded on his heart so they knew he was serious. The younger men in the room were inspired for justice and revolution. They were not unlike my friends and I away at school, our hearts stirring for the injustices in our own little world. All people are people. Tout moun se moun,” said Ellen.

Ellen’s brother, Thomas, 19, took the time to greet each of the farmers we’d met.

“It’s one thing to see people on TV that don’t have access to fresh water, but it’s another thing to shake their hand,” he later said.

So what will they do?

Ellen Coppley said she already is thinking of finding a way to help the farmers tell their stories.

“Now that I’ve visited the farmers and heard them speak, with impossible passion, about the solutions that are just out of reach financially, I have come to really believe in the Haitian proverb ‘tout moun se moun,’ or all people are the equal,” she said.

Rev. Wiley said the farmers’ words resonated with her, leading her to want to work from where she lives in the U.S.

“It all makes me want to pay more attention to farming issues in the states, be sensitive to how issues here impact Haitian farmers, try to find responsible ways here to respond and be in relationship with Haitian farmers,” she said.

Rev. Wiley continued, “We don’t need to be going to Haiti and telling farmers how to do their work. We need to learn from Haitians how we can help them achieve their goals. That makes me, with my particular gifts, want to do some of the teaching of folks here that this difference is crucial. It is spiritual!”


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