A Regional Gathering of Food Producers and Change-Makers
“The richness of this encounter is not what we bring, but what we will share between us.” Cesar Flores tells us as we gather in the conference room on the first day of our encounter.
In February, MCC brought together local experts from around the Latin and Caribbean region , to Haiti, for discussion and sharing about food security and climate change. People from Colombia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cuba, Haití, Canada, the United States, Mexico and Honduras were all present. Friendships quickly formed among participants and conversations around the table during meals turned into heated discussions about backyard crops and growing methods.
Along with the deep richness of experience and knowledge that these agricultural experts represent, they also hold a sobering awareness of the real impacts of climate change.
During panels and small group discussions, people shared about extreme droughts, interspersed with flooding: a new form of structural violence damaging entire countries. I took notes of the signs: new devastating insects, diseases, unpredictable seasons, and wrote down impacts: hunger, migration, poverty, uncertainty, soil erosion, loss of traditional culture, doubt. Participant after participant spoke about how some of the farmers and communities they work with are coping with these massive changes, but without the scientific understanding that we take for granted through our access to news media. Instead, no longer able to predicate the seasons, communities and isolated groups of farmers blame themselves for the changes they cannot control.  We heard stories of communities who believe their lack of faith, rather than human created climate change, is the reason for readable seasons. Their prayers for rain have not been enough to hold the universe together.
Every other day, we exchanged the conference room in our hotel for the Haitian countryside. We passed groups of people clustered around the canal, laundry hanging off of cactus hedges and river rocks, splashes of colour against the green and brown of gardens. Tiny plots of rice paddy green lined the highway, dotted with people hard at work. In the van, we discussed ways Haiti is different from our expectations: there is poverty, but there is also dignity and cooperation.
We saw this most fully in Kabay, a tiny community high up in Haiti’s deforested mountains. Community members worked together to combat erosion of precious topsoil and slowly turned their hills green again through reforestation and a local seed bank. We gathered, under the shade of a massive mango tree, and listened as community members started the meeting with a song about the importance of local food production. We then set off on a tour to see their gardens.
The patches of green represented micro scales of hope in the middle of dusty drought. In this community trees meant waking up in the morning to birdsong coming from rustling leaves, when before, there was only silence.
Is that enough?
“The forest creates its own ideal habitat.” Peter Wohlleben writes in the Hidden Lives of Trees. He describes the way trees stop erosion through their deep roots. Their fallen lives create a richer layer of humus every year. Trees’ natural water evaporation system even serves to cool the air around them, serving as the forest’s air conditioner. It is fitting to learn that trees communicate with each other, through tiny fungi connecting their roots deep underground. Plant a tree, and not only is it connected with other trees, it also becomes the host for a teeming variety of life, from fungus to birds. Plant a tree and new possibility unfolds, leaf by mango. Yet Wohlleben reminds us that one tree is simply a start, because “a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”
“They buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds,” is a saying I have seen over and over in Latin America, after deaths and disappearances, many times among environmental activists. Those who are gone return to the soil, sprouting new movements and fertilizing action. On the wall of the conference room in Haiti, participants have written not only the impacts of climate change, but the strengths that can already be found within their communities: organization, new planting techniques, traditional knowledge, and relationships with local authorities, resistant seeds. This is the forest that provides shelter and nutrients for new trees.
Just as fungi communicate between roots, we are all connected and interdependent on one another.
On the last evening, we have a talent show. It is the normal mix of ridiculous and exuberance, until the last act. Rosita St. Louis Allen comes forward with graceful movement, and starts to play the drum. She tells us that the rhythms, which she calls Igbo, represent slavery and rebellion. We listen as her hands tell of Haiti, of hope in the middle of unbearable oppression. All the stories we have been told since arriving are there, in the rhythm: kidnapping in Africa; a five year slave life expectancy; market women, leading the rebellion from their stalls; freedom; occupation; coups; earthquakes; hurricanes; and the ever present underlying beat of Haitians, growing food in communities together. As the drum beat changes, she calls up all our countries to the front, one by one, for the new struggle against climate struggle. We stand together, a regional community of food producers and changemakers. This is my favourite forest.
Anna Vogt is MCC's Regional Advocacy and Context Analyst for the Latin America and Caribbean region. She is based out of Bogota, Colombia.