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Environment and Food in Haiti: Two Crises, One Solution

Environment and Food in Haiti: Two Crises, One Solution


Written by Beverly Bell

Wednesday, 26 May 2010
Peasant Movement GardenIn this interview, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste discusses the role that agriculture can play in Haiti in addressing both the environmental and food crises. Jean-Baptiste is the Executive Director of the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP by its Creole acronym) and the spokesperson for the National Peasant Movement of the Congress of Papay (MPNKP). Until this year, he also sat on the international coordinating committee of Vía Campesina, a confederation of organizations of peasant, family, indigenous, and landless farmers from more than sixty countries.

The solutions Jean-Baptiste and many other Haitians propose reside in part in one set of policies and programs which can restore land and other riches of nature, and another set which can protect small-scale, sustainable agricultural production from agribusiness. An additional part of the solution rests in agro-ecology, a model of agriculture based on environmental health. Developed as an alternative to the Green Revolution, agro-ecology urges local production of healthy, organic food for local markets. It values biodiversity and traditional knowledge, and opposes genetic modification and patenting of seeds. Haiti is among the many countries with thriving movements of organized farmers who are advancing this model.

Jean-Baptiste gave this interview from Papay, where the MPP has created ecological demonstration gardens. The farmers maximize the productivity of small pieces of land in ways which sustain, rather than exhaust, it. They use all natural resources efficiently in bio-loops. They germinate seedlings inside of discarded tires and use other inventive gardening methodology. They are growing fast-growing plants which yield harvests in six weeks, in addition to other organic vegetables and medicinal plants. Their goats, rabbits, and chickens consume kitchen and garden waste and, from it, produce manure which is then used as fertilizer. Compost serves as additional fertilizer. The operation also involves draining gray water from kitchens and showers, and running it through several ponds filled with sand, gravel, and charcoal; with the cleaned water that emerges, they breed fish and irrigate gardens. MPP also employs cisterns, gravity-fed irrigation, and other catchment and watering systems to conserve and maximize water during dry season.

This interview predated the news that Monsanto has donated 60,000 seed sacks (475 tons) of hybrid corn seeds and vegetable seeds to Haiti. For Jean-Baptiste’s and the MPP’s response, see “Haitian Farmers Commit to Burning Monsanto Hybrid Seeds.”

“In contrast to the destruction that the industrial sector is causing around the world, Vía Campesina and other groups such as Friends of Nature have done studies that show that peasant and family agriculture can combat climate change. I’m in a Vía Campesina commission on climate change, and there we’re clear: to impact climate change, we have to change the mode of agricultural production. Peasants around the world are very vigilant about this. In Haiti we have an advantage, which is that the majority of peasants grow only organically.

“We see the development of Haiti through the production of local, organic food; the conservation of that food; and its transformation into products for the cities. The peasants have said, ‘Let’s talk about storage and transformation and commercialization in local and national markets. Let’s develop an economy where peasants have control.’ This could really develop the riches of the country while bringing Haiti back environmentally.

“We see reforestation as extremely important. Haiti has less than 2% tree cover. Two years ago we asked for each rural section to plant 10,000 trees each, or 56,000 trees each year. That would allow us to cover the country.

“Also, if we could plant fruit orchard plantations, that would have three objectives. It would protect the environment. It would give peasants income so that wouldn’t have to cut down tress to make wood charcoal. It would also mean that we wouldn’t have to depend any more on the Dominican Republic for the lemons, the coconuts, the oranges and other food we consume.

“I talked with an exporter who told me that 200,000 cases of Haitian [Madame] Françique mangos are sold in five square kilometers in Manhattan. That means that there is an enormous market for mangoes in the U.S., which could also help us combat deforestation.

“One thing we need for that to happen is integrated water management systems. Now because of deforestation, when it rains, we get floods. Maybe an earthquake comes every 50 or 100 years, but floods are each year, and hurricanes almost every year. Houses get washed away, animals get washed away, land gets washed away, people get washed away. I was talking with a peasant who said we used to have two seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. Now we have two seasons: the dry season and the flood season.

“With good irrigation systems we could produce a lot of food and we could help the environment. In Haiti, we have 300,000 hectares of land that could be irrigated, but we have maybe 30,000 or 40,000 that have a good irrigation system now.

“We’re developing different irrigation systems with wells that you pump with solar panels. You can use cisterns that catch water on the roof. We’ve had great experiences with one or two families capturing 15,000 liters of water that have carried them through the dry season. We have other, more advanced systems of mountaintop catchment lakes, which let you to hold rain in lakes that you make with bulldozers or abundant peasant labor, so that when the dry season comes you can have water and you can still grow food. You can also treat gray water, like in the MPP center; we treat the water that comes from the shower and kitchen with a series of lakes with gravel, sand, and charcoal.

“One of the things we’re doing is creating solar energy, because peasants should have electricity. One member of MPP has two lightbulbs run from a solar panel. He can play his radio, charge his telephone, even watch television.

“All our public positions are clearly against genetically modified seeds and against agro-fuels.

We’re in a heated battle against the introduction of GM [genetically modified] seeds and against jatropha plantations. We’re especially against jatropha, the plant that has a seed that gives oil which you can make agro-diesel from. We don’t call it bio-diesel, because we in Vía Campesina are clear that ‘bio’ means life and that you can’t mix life with diesel and big business. They say jatropha is a miracle plant, but from other studies and my own, I know it’s a catastrophe plant. One thing we want is a law against jatropha and a law against the introduction of GM seeds. Last year we marched to the parliament, and we were well-received. In October we met with the parliament again, and we were going to meet them again in January but now we’re in a national crisis. But peasants are very vigilant about this.

“We in Haiti are committed to staying a county where organic, biological agriculture dominates.

We know that Clinton and the multinationals, the IMF and the WTO, have another plan for us – one based on the import of GM seeds and food aid, one based on making us grow for export, including growing for agro-diesel. But we’re putting on pressure to say: no, that’s not what Haiti needs, here is what popular Haitian organizations want, here is our agenda.”

(See “The Clock is Set to Zero” for the first part of this interview.)

Photo: Fast-growing plants and used tires in a demonstration garden of the Peasant Movement of Papay. Haiti’s movement of small farmer advocates ecological agriculture as well as policies which protect both the environment and local production. Photo taken by Roberto (Bear) Guerra.

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.

The Legacy of U.S. Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands

The Legacy of U.S. Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands

May 24, 2010 · By Robert Alvarez · Originally published in The Huffington Post

The people of the Marshall Islands had their homeland and health sacrificed for U.S. national security interests. The Obama administration and Congress should promptly correct this injustice.

The radiological legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands remains to this day and will persist for many years to come. The most severe impacts were visited upon the people of the Rongelap Atoll in 1954 following a very large thermonuclear explosion which deposited life-threatening quantities of radioactive fallout on their homeland. They received more than three times the estimated external dose than to the most heavily exposed people living near the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. It took more than two days before the Rongelap people were evacuated after the explosion. Many suffered from tissue destructive effects, such as burns, and subsequently from latent radiation-induced diseases.

In 1957, they were returned to their homeland even though officials and scientists working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) determined that radiation doses would significantly exceed those allowed for citizens of the United States. The desire to study humans living in a radiation-contaminated environment appeared to be a major element of this decision. A scientist in a previously secret transcript of a meeting where they decided to return the Rongelap people to their atoll stated an island contaminated by the 1954 H-Bomb tests was ” by far the most contaminated place in the world.” He further concluded that, “it would very interesting to go back and get good environmental data… so as to get a measure of the human uptake, when people live in a contaminated environment…Now, data of this type has never been available. …While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners so, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that they are more like us than the mice ”

By 1985, the people of Rongelap fled their atoll, after determining that the levels of contamination were comparable to the Bikini atoll where numerous nuclear devices were detonated. The Bikini people were re-settled in 1969 but had to evacuate their homes in1978 after radiation exposures were found to be excessive. The Rongelap people fled for good reason. In 1982, a policy was secretly established by the Energy department during the closing phase of negotiations between the United States and the nascent Republic of the Marshall Islands over the Compact of Free Association to eliminate radiation protection standards, so as to not interfere with the potential resumption of weapons testing. This resulted in a sudden and alarming increase in radiation doses to the Rongelap people eating local food. These circumstances were subsequently uncovered in 1991 by the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. As a result, the U.S. Congress terminated DOE’s nuclear test readiness program in the Pacific and in 1992 the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior entered into an agreement with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Local Rongelap Government that re-established radiation protection standards as a major element for the re-settlement of Rongelap.
Apparently, this was not done for the southern islands of the atoll where local food is obtained. Despite the long and unfortunate aftermath of nuclear testing in ther Marshalls, it appears that this critical element of safety was lost in the shuffle. As it now stands, if forced to return to their homeland the Rongelap people could receive radiation doses about 10 times greater than allowed for the public in the United States.

Until the U. S. government can assure that steps to mitigate doses to the same levels that are protective of American people are demonstrated, efforts to force the Rongelap people back to the home by Members of the U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration is unjustified and unfairly places the burden of protection on the Rongelap people. It appears that DOE and Interior have quietly crept away from the 1992 agreement, without verifying that its terms and conditions to allow for safe habitability will be met. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. Congress has enacted legislation to compensate to residents living near DOE’s Nevada Test Site uranium miners, nuclear weapons workers, and military personnel for radiation-related illnesses. These laws provide for a greater benefit of the doubt than for the people of the Marshall Islands where 66 nuclear weapons were exploded in the open air.

In 2005, the National Cancer Institute reported that that the risk of contracting cancer for those exposed to fallout was greater than one in three. The people of the Marshall Islands had their homeland and health sacrificed for the national security interests of the United States. The Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress should promptly correct this injustice.

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