Accompanying the people of Haiti toward justice

Listening, respect vital to Joining Hands’ success

By Cindy Corell | Mission Co-worker Haiti

Mission co-worker Cindy Corell, companionship facilitator with FONDAMA, (center) visits with Yvette Michaud, FONDAMA’s treasurer, and Nicolas Noël, coordinator of a farmer organization in Thomazeau, Haiti.
Photo by Martine Jean

In 2013, when I began serving in Haiti as a companionship facilitator with our Joining Hands network FONDAMA, I saw so much potential.

In the spirit of Joining Hands, our network in Haiti would identify root causes of the country’s massive poverty and fight for justice through stronger laws to protect Haitians while U.S. Presbyterians would workto make U.S. policies more fair through advocacy.

By working together, members of the hundreds of farmer organizations that made up the network could harness great power to change lives by changing laws!

Problems like land-grabbing, heavy reliance on imported food and the effects of climate change would resolve. And our friends in Haiti could live into the abundant life we all are promised!

Except — I didn’t factor in my great naivete.

The problems that hold down people in Haiti – as in so many developing countries – are entrenched. The misery Haitians have suffered for generations has created dependency, jealousy, lack of education and extremely poor health and living conditions.

Thankfully, with the help of Haitian co-workers and colleagues from other Joining Hands networks, I began to listen and learn.

From naivety to humility

Root causes of poverty in Haiti are not insurmountable, but to solve the problems we must understand that the drivers of successful advocacy are Haitian people.

After coming to grips with that realization, we as American Presbyterians will need to understand that the source of many issues harming Haiti and Haitians are from the outside. Many of them, in fact, can be tied to U.S. policies. We as partners in mission and advocacy must start by humbly acknowledging our role in their poverty and examining our policies.

And then, I, as a former journalist who was accustomed to seeing results – a fresh newspaper in my hands every morning – quickly understood that ministry through Joining Hands and advocacy in general is a marathon, not a sprint. I would have to cope with working hard and trusting results will come, that lives too long dealt a poor hand, can change for the better.

My role as companionship facilitator includes bringing U.S. delegations into the fold – either through story or by hosting groups visiting our organizations. So, as I learned about root causes of poverty in Haiti, many of our fellow Presbyterians began to learn as well.

From humility to accompaniment

The Presbytery of the James (POJ) has been FONDAMA’s committed partner, not only in mission, but also in accompaniment. Since 2012, delegations from the POJ have visited Haiti and traveled the country spending time in communities where FONDAMA organizations serve.

Various brands of rice produced in the Artibonite region of Haiti. Photo by Cindy Corell

They have witnessed the devastation after hurricanes and drought.

They have heard how local producers fight to compete against imported rice and other foods.

They have listened as families who lost ground to land-grabbers share stories.

Several other congregations have sent delegations who learned more about the history of Haiti, especially as it reflects reasons for the country’s dire poverty. Invited into rural communities, the visitors experienced Haiti’s warm hospitality as they dined and worshiped God together.

In all these visits, it is Haitians who tell their stories.

An ecumenical group of U.S. churches that partners near Jacmel, Haiti, heard about the concept of looking at root causes of poverty. They invited me in to, along with their Haitian program director, to lead a workshop at their annual staff and board retreat.

Emphasizing that this exercise is only effective if their Haitian partners take the lead, we talked about listening skills and looking at issues from a different angle.

“Considering root causes has definitely come up over and over again in our conversations,” said Clark Seipt, executive director of Community Coalition for Haiti. “It’s a mindset and a perspective.”

Because so many Presbyterians are active in Haiti through partnerships, FONDAMA wants to continue sharing these tenets of Joining Hands, and including more groups and congregations in future campaigns.

Successes large and small

Bearing witness to the long, slow journey of advocacy, FONDAMA’s partner Castin Milosten walked with farmers who had lost land without fair compensation for an industrial park in the northeast of Haiti. Planned and built through partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Haitian government, the park was created near Caracol a year after the January 2010 earthquake. In a matter of days, heavy equipment operators arrived to plow down the small farmsteads of hundreds of families.

Valery Nodem, international associate with Presbyterian Hunger Program, left, and Fabienne Jean, coordinator of FONDAMA met with Castin Milosten, an advocate for displaced farmers in northern Haiti. Photo by Cindy Corell

Milosten, founder of a community organization in Trou du Nord, helped the displaced farmers organize to fight for fair compensation. They created the Victim Farmers Collective of Chabè, and together with Milosten and Action Aid, they worked for justice.

In December 2018, with great assistance from Accountability Counsel, a U.S. group of attorneys who specialize in negotiating with international banks, the Collective received a settlement from the Inter-American Development Bank. What made the settlement most remarkable was that with the help of Milosten and others, it was the farmers themselves at the negotiating table.

What’s next?

FONDAMA and its partners are encouraged by the success of the Caracol negotiation. Despite continuing difficulties in Haiti – including deep corruption, a government deemed illegitimate by many and a high risk of criminal activity – FONDAMA continues the fight.

President Jovenel Moïse is ruling by decree after Parliament disbanded because elections for political successors were not held. Absent oversight, Moïse has named a prime minister and a cabinet. The corrupt government operates with even less transparency, signaling even more threats against the people of Haiti.

Fabienne Jean, coordinator of FONDAMA, speaks during a conference of rice producers in the Artibonite region in May 2017. Photo by Cindy Corell

This year FONDAMA’s campaign is to work against rampant land-grabbing, especially during times of political turmoil. In the spring, FONDAMA will host an informational meeting about protecting farmers’ land rights, watching for changes in harmful laws. FONDAMA continues to advocate for food sovereignty, fully supporting farmers’ abilities to produce local foods.

FONDAMA partners with other major advocacy platforms in Haiti. We are engaged with a working group of advocacy networks based in Washington, D.C., examining hurtful U.S. policies.

And even this is not simple. In the 1990s, the U.S. and other foreign governments convinced Haiti to drop its tariff on imports so American surplus foods could dump into Haiti. President Clinton publicly apologized in 2010 for this policy which almost immediately killed Haiti’s rice production and shoved local producers into deeper poverty.

Before the 1980s, Haiti was producing its own food, but today, 80 percent of the food Haiti consumes is imported. Much of it comes from neighboring Dominican Republic, but also North America.

The so-called Bumper Amendment prohibits USAID from supporting Haiti’s production of rice (or any other produce that might compete with U.S. foods).

These are topics for future and on-going campaigns. We will need support from Presbyterians to join hands with the members of FONDAMA to truly make change.

Listen first

As I’ve shared, the enormity of this work has daunted me. This has been the most frustrating, most challenging work I’ve tackled. But it also is the most hopeful.

Job Belamour, left, with translator Franky Charles, tells his story of losing his land twice. His farm at in northeast Haiti was taken to make way for a large industrial park at Caracol in 2011. Though he received small compensation for his land, he used it to purchase land at Trou du Nord. In September 2013, a Haitian corporation in connection with the government displaced Belamour and took that property as part of a land-grab for a banana plantation. Photo by Cindy Corell

If you know anything about Haiti, you know about its poverty, about how long foreign groups have dropped into the country to help. And you also know that it hasn’t worked. If anything, all the so-called aid – billions of dollars’ worth – that came to Haiti after the earthquake left our friends here poorer than before. And I’ve come to understand that the reason for this is simple:

As foreigners, we’ve done a poor job of listening.

This is why Joining Hands was created 20 years ago. And this is why it is so important that we continue this work, in this way.

The major tenet of Joining Hands is to develop trust by listening to our partners as they share stories and the reasons they see for poverty in their context.

Then and only then can we make any progress. It’s slow work. It’s frustrating, but with effort and patience and prayer, we can witness a change in the lives of our friends around the world.

Only a few years into this work, I presented the work of FONDAMA to a congregation in Virginia. A man sitting in the audience grew visibly frustrated. He moved around in his chair. He shook his head. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was concerned that he didn’t agree with our work.

When I told the story of a woman whose family lost their farm and land to a major corporation, I showed her photo on the screen.

Finally, the man erupted.

“Who took this lady’s land, and what are we going to do about it?” he yelled.

I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time.

We are working on it, sir. We are.

It will still take time. But we will do it. Please join hands with us. Please stay by the side of our sisters and brothers here.

We need you, and we are grateful for you.

The work of the Presbyterian Hunger Program is possible thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing

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