"For a Better Life for the Peasants": Food Sovereignty and Land Reform in Haiti (Part II)

Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Heads Together Small Producers of Haiti) is one of Haiti's two national peasant farmer movements. The oldest peasant group in Haiti, it was born in 1970 under the Duvalier dictatorship.

Tèt Kole's history is notable also because of the violence it has faced at the hands of large landowners. Two massacres have been committed against Tèt Kole members, one in 1987 in Jean-Rabel, the other in 1990 in Piatte. Those hired by the landholding families to commit the attack also burned farmers' homes and crops and killed their animals. In separate incidents, two of Tèt Kole's leaders were assassinated.

Today, Tèt Kole reports it has upwards of 55,000 members in all ten departments of the country.

Annesy Vixama, former member of the national Coordinating Committee of Tèt Kole:

For a better life for the peasant agricultural sector, we need many things. One thing that's important in this country is integrated agrarian reform. Most of the land is in the hands of large landowners, the church, the state. Many, many peasants have no land to work, even though land is the base of their lives.

The Haitian state needs to take its responsibility and launch an integrated agrarian reform. That means not just giving peasants a little plot of land, but accompanying it with credit, fertilizer, and transformation of their products, where people can transform their goods from cocoa to chocolate, from corn to cornmeal, from fruit to jam, from manioc to cassava, et cetera. [Among small farmers' challenges is lack of roads and transportation to get their produce to market, and warehouses to store their goods until they can be sold, all resulting in the spoilage of much of their harvest. Transformation offers preservation of the food as well as diversification of products to sell.] This would give peasants possibilities.

It's not just that. What chance do peasants have to pay for school for their children? Schools aren't available for them. They cost a lot and they're far away from the homes. This causes such problems for small producers, and sometimes they even have to sell land to pay tuition. Sometimes they have to sell land to take care of other obligations like a marriage or a funeral, too.

If peasants weren't abandoned, if the state assumed its responsibility, all this wouldn't be happening. An integrated land reform would help get the harvest to market and with what they sell they could take care of their families. We need agrarian reform to guarantee health, education, food, security of their land.

A second question is reforestation. The environment is disappearing. Peasants have to cut trees to live. I've passed by the homes of very motivated peasants, but they're so hungry they have to cut branches off their trees to make wood charcoal. They know it's not right, but they don't have any other resource. You go by another day, they've cut another branch. You pass by again, the whole tree is gone. They cut it just so they can eat.

I know peasant groups who are planting some trees around them, who are doing soil recovery, but these are little activities, they're not a national project. It's not sufficient. If they don't do reforestation... I don't know. We'll perish.

Food sovereignty is very important, too. We're in big danger today. For a country to remain sovereign, it has to be able to feed itself. Today in Haiti with the neoliberal policies, with the opening of free trade barriers to foreign markets and the invasion of our markets by foreign products, peasant agriculture has declined. This has had big consequences on the peasant sector and our whole country. It's meant that a lot of peasants have had to abandon agriculture to go to the city or to other countries.

Peasants are struggling a lot for sovereignty, in food and in politics. Food sovereignty would guarantee that the country could feed itself each day.

The project of Monsanto, for example [which has just donated 475 tons of seed to Haiti]... Monsanto invades countries with GMO and hybrid products, and those countries lose their right to conserve their own seeds. They become dependent on these international entities. It's an act of assassination.

The traditional products of peasants, like corn and peas, have been in development here for more than 200 years. When a company decides on its own, or in complicity with a few politicians, to come in to profit off of peasants, it's a crime. It's a crime against food sovereignty, against the peasants' rights. It's a crime against humanity.

The state has to change from attending to international businesses that are acting against the majority of the people and start attending to the peasants.

Rosnel Jean-Baptiste, national coordinating committee of Tèt Kole:

Since Tèt Kole's founding, land reform has always been at our heart. Land reform would let people have land to work and to live on. This is especially true since the drama of the earthquake, that more than anything else in our history has put tears in our eyes. It's caused hunger and poverty to grow, too.

Right now the rural population can't survive. People can't grow as they should because they don't have any support. Re-envisioning Haiti means investing in the agricultural sector. That's the only way that farmers can survive and that we don't have to depend on others. That means land reform, decentralizing the capital, bringing services into the countryside, and supporting agriculture.

The population has no access to social services. If you want education you have to go to Port-au-Prince. If you want health care, or a job, you have to go to Port-au-Prince. That's why in the neoliberal plank, with the growth of the assembly industry, the whole population has headed to Port-au-Prince.

Decentralizing the country away from the capital isn't just sending a state representative into each rural section like they do now, but bringing services into the countryside and helping people find jobs there. It means doing agrarian reform so people can live there.

If the government hasn't been able to do anything after [the earthquake of] January 12 to resolve the problems, I don't think they'll do it for us now. It's up to us to us, social movements, to put our heads together to change the situation of the country.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.