Back to basics: The quest for food security in Haiti

Food security is not an abstraction. Ask teacher Marie Therese Mayard. Having survived the initial Jan. 12 earthquake, Mayard, 65, spent her first days in a tent next to a nunnery run by the Daughters of Wisdom, a Roman Catholic religious order, in the city of Petit Goave, southwest of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

Marie Therese Mayard
Teacher Marie Therese Mayard.
Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

By Chris Herlinger/CWS

Petit Goave, Haiti – Food security is not an abstraction. Ask teacher Marie Therese Mayard.

Having survived the initial Jan. 12 earthquake, Mayard, 65, spent her first days in a tent next to a nunnery run by the Daughters of Wisdom, a Roman Catholic religious order, in the city of Petit Goave, southwest of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

For a time, Mayard and her friends were asking what, and even at times, if, they would eat. “We still haven’t eaten anything today,” she said in an interview in the days after the earthquake. When meals did come, they were often of the dry food ration sort.

But Mayard soon got the chance to buy her own food with a $75 grant from the National Human Rights Defense Network, known in Creole by the acronym RNDDH, as part of CWS-supported ACT Alliance efforts in Haiti.

A small step, perhaps, but it points to the need to address the foundational issue of food security in Haiti.

That is something CWS has long tried to address even before the current response to the massive Jan. 12 quake.

As part of the CWS response to Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004, CWS initiated a program to develop rural cooperatives in the northwestern part of Haiti to assist families who lost crops and livestock.

Haitian woman scooping grain A member of one of the CWS supported agricultural coops in Haiti, as she scoops some grain. Photo: Hillary Prag

Four of the 13 cooperatives are about to become self-sustaining. Between them they have more than 1,350 members, more than half of them women. The project has developed beyond subsistence to a level of sustainable self-sufficiency at community levels. The members pool their resources into a common "bank" that allows them to save and borrow money; store grain, share land and animals; educate themselves on managing land and money; and repay their micro-loans.

Now, CWS plans to expand the program in the Northwest and Artibonite areas to assist communities facing a new reality following the earthquake: the migration of hundreds of thousands out of earthquake-stricken Port-au-Prince into rural areas.

Donna Derr, CWS's director of development and humanitarian assistance, said the expanded program will provide seeds, fertilizer and livestock, small loans for business start-up and training for rural communities facing new pressures and new challenges.

"The plan is to work with cooperatives in the Northwest and Artibonite areas who will serve between 3,500 and 4,500 local families, with special attention to women-headed households. Many of those have had displaced persons from Port-au-Prince move into their communities," Derr said.

The already-established cooperatives have a track record of multiplying their opportunities. One coop member, Renold Oscar, recalled recently that he had a piece of land that he used to sharecrop.

"One day one of the landowner’s family got sick and he said he needed to sell the land, so I wouldn’t be able to work it anymore unless I bought it. I had a pregnant cow, but if I sold it, I would lose more," Oscar said.

"So I talked with my wife and decided to go to the cooperative. I talked with the credit committee and they agreed to lend me $63. With that I bought the land. A month later the cow gave birth. If not for the loan from the cooperative, I would have lost two cattle or the land that is my resource.”

Oscar's success is one example of how seasoned cooperatives are building food security on their own. With further support from CWS, those coops now will be able to embrace the needs of Haiti's recently displaced – and serve as a vital model for seeing that larger numbers of Haitians won't go hungry.

CWS staffer Chris Herlinger was recently in Haiti on assignment for Church World Service and the ACT Alliance.

Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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