Continuing to Grow in Haiti
If you find yourself driving down a rocky road in the southern arm of Haiti, with the sparkling ocean on one side and tall green mountains on the other, and you see alluring flowers growing upside-down from trees, an abundance of sheep, running rivers, and smiling faces, you might just have found St. Jean du Sud. While the scenery alone is something to admire, the work happening within the community is even more notable. If you speak with the members of this community, you’ll find these are people who were struck hard by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. But their livelihoods are beginning to prosper again with the help of a local organization called the AVOREDES (Association of Volunteers for the Reform and Development of St. Jean du Sud by its initials in French).
Hurricane Matthew was one of the strongest storms to hit Haiti in nearly 50 years. The storm ravaged Haiti’s southern peninsula; homes were brought to their foundations, gardens were torn from the earth, and any resources that could be used for rebuilding were depleted. St Jean du Sud was made especially vulnerable by preexisting conditions of extreme poverty, the susceptible topography of the area (low-lying areas directly on the sea and steep terrain in the higher mountains), and overall direct exposure to the storm. There are roughly 598,000 people living in Haiti’s southern departments, including 25,500 in St. Jean du Sud, the majority of whom rely on small scale farming for their livelihoods. The Haitian Ministry of Agriculture estimated that two million individuals in Haiti had their livelihoods destroyed and were left without the resources to rebuild post-storm. According to assessments made by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA), communities in Haiti’s South Department expressed that rebuilding local agriculture was their top priority over shelter, education, or any other needs.
AVOREDES is a small independent organization that was founded by members of the Assemblée de la Grâce Mennonite Church of St. Jean du Sud in order to encourage agricultural development with the vulnerable populations in their own community. After Hurricane Matthew, they quickly identified problems caused by the storm and how they would be able to fix them. They knew that the top priority for the community was to rebuild food security, both because proper nutrition is important for agricultural laborers and because the people of St. Jean du Sud depend on agricultural income. Without that income, they may have had to leave the city or even the country to find a better living. This is what inspired MCC and AVOREDES to support residents of St. Jean du Sud as they rebuilt their gardens and livelihoods by providing participants with seedlings, agricultural tools, and livestock like goats as part of a three year project.
Long-term reconstruction is very important for communities after natural disasters because it allows them to continue to develop even after material aids have been distributed. To the members of this community, the project started by AVOREDES was notably different than other projects started by non-local organizations. Jean Ovener Morcelin, pastor of the Assemblée de la Grâce Mennonite Church in San St. Jean du Sud, said AVOREDES’ original vision was to increase the economic development of the area by including the community through participation as they learned how to use conservation agriculture and agroforestry techniques in their gardens. Community members remarked that the project was successful in bringing neighbors together to build each other’s gardens because it was led by local residents, who participated in their own recovery and were made stronger because of this community aspect. Pierre Makerson Jocelyn, a founder of AVOREDES, said, “In secluded areas, people don’t work together, but AVOREDES did. We like our work, more people are learning, it’s a sustainable project. We can continue to grow.”
The initial project aimed to aid 50 families by producing both vegetable and tree nurseries. The project focused on aiding the most vulnerable community members, but selecting the most vulnerable people in a community where everyone had suffered so much was a challenge. AVOREDES was able to provide participants with one goat for each household. They suggested that if those goats reproduced, participants could give one of the offspring back to AVOREDES so another family, who was not among the original participants, could then receive a goat. The decision was unanimous: all participants decided to share their goats. They knew they wanted to help as many people as they could in their community and this was one of the best ways to do it. This option provided a model that could continually grow and expand development. Over 85 families were able to fully participate in the project because of the sacrifice the first 50 families made.
The people of this community shared their Christian values through the work of the AVOREDES project. They were given one resource and chose to share it with those around them who had no resources. There was a common understanding that it was going to be hard work. Morcelin observed, “God is with us in this work. They [the community members] worked hard and they know everything they received is a sign that God is with us.” Taking a role in their development and working for their community changed their perception of being a project participant. It was noted by several community members that the work has been a great improvement to the economy. People have their livelihoods again and they have hope for their futures.
Speaking about his community, Morcelin said, “St Jean du Sud is a part of Haiti: a part where God has sent people to work, where development is happening. We want to continue developing.” So if you find yourself driving down a rocky road along a shimmering coastline in southern Haiti you might just see St. Jean du Sud, a community facilitating their own growth--and an abundance of plantains-- through their gardens.