1982: Growing trees and developing leaders in the Artibonite Valley
Men anpil, chay pa lou.
"Many hands make the load lighter."
Over the last 60 years, MCC has worked alongside Haitian partners, putting our hands together in healing suffering, cultivating the soil, supporting the vulnerable, and holding on to peace. In 2018, MCC in Haiti will celebrate this legacy through a series of six stories highlighting each decade.
For Jean Remy Azor, Coordinator of the MCC office in Desarmes, 36 years of reforestation work is producing a visible change in the land and livelihoods of those in the Artibonite Valley of Haiti.
“When you look at [the Artibonite], you can see there are more trees providing coverage for homes than there were before. If you go up to the mountains, you can see the area of Desarmes is covered in trees. There are a lot of people who have changed their economic situation. They did not have a home, but now, they have a house with a roof so they are covered when the rain comes.”
From 1958 until 1982, MCC worked with Hospital Albert Schweitzer as a partner organization to provide medical services to the people of Haiti’s Artibonite valley, but medical services alone could not address all the challenges facing this part of the country. Hoping to provide additional support, MCC sent two service workers to the Artibonite in order to complete a survey to determine the highest needs in the area. These workers concluded that, after healthcare, the next largest need was reforestation. A rural area whose residents are largely vulnerable farmers, the Artibonite suffered from severe deforestation, resulting in unstable terrain and gardens that were easily washed away during storms.
“To me, [the reason MCC chose the Artibonite] was self-evident: here was a people in great need. The hope was that, with our support and resources, the farmers of the Artibonite Valley could improve their lot and become more self-sufficient,” said Willy Dyck, who worked with MCC in the Artibonite from 1987 to 1990.
In 1982, MCC started its first tree nursery in Deschappelles, where Hospital Albert Schweitzer is located. Residents of Deschappelles could come to the tree nursery to receive seedlings, based on their level of need, including both fruit and shade trees. After a short time, a second tree nursery was opened in the nearby community of Lachappelle. As the work increased, MCC looked to local churches to find potential leaders for the project. These leaders, called ‘animators,’ managed tree distributions and trained local project participants in agricultural techniques. After several interviews, MCC hired four staff animators including Jean Remy Azor, who have been a cornerstone of MCC’s agro-forestry work since that time.
MCC sent these local animators to trainings in Papay, a zone just outside of Hinche in the Haiti’s Central Plateau. There, they learned how to share the importance of reforestation with their local communities in addition to soil conservation and agricultural techniques. As Azor reflected on his work with MCC in the early years of tree distributions, he shared that the animators were truly invested in their communities.
“They [trainers in Papay] were helping people do more than just learn the techniques. They were helping people become ‘development agents.’ These agents had an understanding of the agricultural techniques, but they also had an understanding of the inner workings of the community, such as their needs and their political situation.”
The animators were an integral part of the project as they worked in relationship with MCC and local communities. They assisted with and coordinated mass distributions of trees to communities, which was MCC’s preferred approach to reforestation in the Artibonite for the first several years.
MCC continued to do mass tree distributions but, while effective in numbers, they did not allow for the kind of multi-faceted accompaniment the workers wanted to do in communities. This method of distributing trees changed after animators attended a training on the group formations called gwoupman. The gwoupman method grouped together the most vulnerable families in a specific area and encouraged them to work cooperatively, providing them with trees and additional accompaniment and technical training. The gwoupman method proved successful, and MCC continues to implement reforestation and food security projects in the same way in current projects in the Artibonite.
For Ron Bluntschli, who, along with his wife Carla, worked with MCC in the Artibonite from 1986-1988, the continued success of the program can be attributed to the dedication of MCC staff and animators like Jean Remy.
“We were fortunate to have Jean Remy as one of the animators because, if we had gone another way, it could have fallen apart. But he was serious about the program and carried it on.”
Recognizing the skills and capacity of national staff members, MCC shifted responsibility for tree nursery management from MCC volunteers to national staff. Because of his knowledge and expertise in the program, Azor was made head of the program in Desarmes, a rural area that had been a beneficiary of the larger tree nurseries in Deschapelles and Lachapelle.
The Desarmes program flourished under Azor's leadership, and MCC secured additional external funders in 1993 to help grow the program.
“This really started a bigger movement for reforestation in the area,” said Azor. “We rebuilt the tree nurseries in Desarmes, we had more economic resources, and we concentrated on placing additional tree nurseries in the communities.”
Success in the area could be seen in the trees covering the homes and pathways of gwoupman participants. As lumber and fruit trees flourished, the participants were able to begin selling their fruit or producing charcoal from quickly-reproducing cassia trees.
The Desarmes program eventually hosted a second office in addition to the Port-au-Prince office. Plans for the Desarmes branch to become an independent organization have been in progress for the past several years, and these dreams of autonomy will come to fruition next year as the MCC programs in Desarmes become APDL, Asosyasyon Peyizan pou Developman nan Latibonit, with Jean Remy Azor serving as the director. As an MCC partner, APDL will continue the work of reforestation that was a part of the program from the very beginning.
“MCC has worked hand-in-hand with the local team in Desarmes for over 36 years to create change in the surrounding communities,” said Rebecca Shetler Fast, MCC Haiti Country Representative. “The APDL team has built their capacity and confidence to the point that they can move beyond MCC and truly be 100% locally owned and managed. When APDL becomes an independent organization in 2019, they will become MCC’s closest and biggest partner in Haiti. We look forward to many years of close collaboration, moving forward as equal partners.”