Haitian's work against deforesting wins prize

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Haitian's work against deforesting wins prize

Post by admin » Mon Apr 18, 2005 6:01 pm


[quote]Haitian's work against deforesting wins prize

Haitian peasant-rights activist Chavannes Jean-Baptiste has won the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize.


PAPAYE, Haiti - Farming in Haiti is spiraling slowly toward oblivion.

After three centuries of deforestation, rain does little more than carry precious topsoil away to the sea.

And as the land becomes ever more barren, peasant farmers have only one way to survive -- burn the last scraggly trees to sell as charcoal.

Foreign conservationists have spent untold millions of dollars trying to break this cycle, only to watch the nation sink further into a Dust Bowl of its own making.

But Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian agronomist and founder of the Papaye Peasant M
ovement, has been fighting the problem from within, working to give small farmers a reason to preserve the land as a stake in their own survival.

Today, the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation announced it is awarding Jean-Baptiste its annual $125,000 prize, considered the Nobel for environmentalists.

''In a country battling both extreme poverty and environmental degradation, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste has inspired thousands of Haitians to protect their watersheds, tree cover and farmland,'' Richard Goldman, co-founder of the prize, said in a statement. ``He is a true environmental hero and exemplifies the purpose for establishing the prize.''

The award will give Jean-Baptiste a boost of cash and considerable leverage for more funding from foreign groups. But whether his movement of 60,000 peasants on Haiti's arid Central Plateau will bear fruit in the long run depends on whether Haiti can stabilize itself.


Jean-Baptiste has been shot at,
sent into exile and seen his life's work ransacked by government thugs. He has seen the orchards he has planted cut down and watched the political movement he helped build, the Lavalas party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, turn into something he despised.

The political turmoil of the past 20 years -- the coming and going of numerous, ineffective governments -- has made significant progress on any front impossible, including the environment.

''The Papaye Peasant Movement has always been an advocacy movement,'' said Daniel Moss of Grassroots International, a group that helps fund the movement. ``But who do you make your demands to in Haiti? It's like shadow boxing.''

Jean-Baptiste, 58, grew up here in the Central Plateau, got his degree in the capital and returned to train peasants in the 1970s.

The lot of the Haitian peasant is as hard as the cracked earth they cultivate. The population expands as the arable land shrinks. Irrigation is scant, few farmers have ti
tles to the land, and U.S.-backed free trade draws in cheap imports like chicken, rice, beans and pork that squeeze peasant produce out of their own markets.

Among a number of things thwarting progress, according to Jean-Baptiste, is a mind-set that the success or failure of crops depends only on supernatural forces.

''If the peasant thinks his crop didn't grow because of God or because some neighbor has a curse against you, what point is technical knowledge?'' asked Jean-Baptiste.

He began the long process of educating and organizing peasants with a simple philosophy: Give them a sense of ownership, and economic need will drive preservation.

As the movement coalesced, they established a credit union to help them buy seeds at lower interest rates. They built grain silos to store their crops, eliminating speculators and middlemen. They started a peasant radio station and improved irrigation to increase the growing season.

Jean-Baptiste became a master at wooing foreign f
unders, and he became a major political force of his own.

When Aristide first won the presidency in 1991, Jean-Baptiste was one of his closest confidantes. Four years later, Lavalas considered him as one of two possible successors for the presidency along with Rene Preval, who ultimately won. Jean-Baptiste headed Preval's transition team.

Now he is behind a new political party called Konba.

''A lot of people say I'm going to run for president,'' he said. ``It is absolutely false. I am not a candidate.''

Jean-Baptiste's political involvement over the years has drawn detractors. Some have questioned why the Papaye movement isn't more strident -- staging protests, blocking roads, demanding land reform, basic irrigation and import tariffs.

''Chavannes has been a galvanizing figure,'' said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at Trinity University in Washington who once funded Jean-Baptiste. ``Either people are really taken in by him or are really put off by him.''



Jean-Baptiste had a very public falling out with Aristide in 1997, accusing him and Lavalas of corruption and thuggery. ''From then, until he left last year, we were under attack,'' he said.

Still, he moved forward with new projects. Over the last 30 years, the movement claims to have planted 20 million trees.

His home in the dry hills is what true success would look like -- an oasis of shade and fruit trees. Tall castor bean stalks supplant old-growth trees as fuel. Specially selected Benzoliv plants fortify the soil with protein. Drip irrigation conserves water, and tomatoes grow in the off-season.

But the landscape surrounding it is as bleak as ever: burned and crumbling hills, dotted with occasional trees, braided by muddy rivers.

''The question is,'' said Maguire, ``if Chavannes is being held up as an example, to what extent does the example he set spread to the farmers and sustain itself?''[/quote]

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Haitian risked his life to reforest land

Post by admin » Mon May 02, 2005 3:48 pm

Haitian risked his life to reforest land
Agronomist is one of Goldman Environmental Prize winnersBy Michelle Nijhuis
Grist Magazine
Updated: 11:28 a.m. ET May 2, 2005

Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, faces overwhelming poverty. Massive deforestation has left its people vulnerable to deadly mudslides and floods, such as those that killed an estimated 3,000 people in late 2004, when tropical storm Jeanne swept through the area. The ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide last spring was only the latest upheaval in this country's long history of political violence, repression, and instability.

Yet Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the founder of the Peasant Movement of Papay, has hope for the environment and people of Haiti. An agronomist, he has spent more than three decades training tens of thousands of farmers
to use water-saving irrigation systems, natural fertilizers and pesticides, and simple erosion-prevention techniques. He's also fought for legal and economic justice for rural Haitians.

Jean-Baptiste's efforts have exacted a great personal cost: he has faced several assassination attempts, and was forced into exile from 1993 to 1994. But his work has also resulted in the planting of more than 20 million fruit and forest trees and, he says, fostered a strong sense of solidarity among the subsistence farmers in his area. "They've come to understand that together, they can change the way they live," he says.

Jean-Baptiste was awarded a 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize at a ceremony in San Francisco on April 18. He spoke with Grist through a translator.

Grist: Tell me how you came to found the Peasant Movement of Papay.

Jean-Baptiste: I started my work in 1972. I was a Catholic lay worker, and as part of my training I had to find out how peasants in the region were doing agricultu
re. I began to learn from the peasants that their biggest problems weren't technical -- I thought from my education that that would be the case -- but were more socioeconomic and cultural. So I had to rethink everything.

I began to read, and do a lot of research, and from this I began to discover my own way of educating. I began to realize that the peasantry had problems with divisions among themselves, and that they were extremely fatalistic, and that these problems and issues were holding them back. Little by little, I developed a method of education and organization. I started in 1973 with two small groups, and now we have a movement of 60,000 people.

Grist: How have you engaged so many people in your efforts?

Jean-Baptiste: The secret is that I knew how to eliminate the divisions that separate people, and to create solidarity. The thing that weaves people together is solidarity around economic, social, and work issues. I also understood what their real interests and needs wer
e. Their immediate need was for the production of food, and we realized that to assist with the production of food we had to create respect for the land, create security in land tenure, and protect the people from the rampages of the middleman. We had to look at all aspects of farm production.

So we began by addressing the immediate needs of the peasant, then moved into other areas. We fought for peasants to have justice in the courts, struggled with them against unfair taxation, and fought with them against the usury system -- which sometimes charges people 300 percent interest per year. We now have a credit union, so peasants can borrow money without paying such high interest rates. The stocking of seeds for the future allows peasants to make a greater profit from production, and training in organic and sustainable farming has increased the capacity of farmers.

It's these kinds of struggles, against all kinds of abuses, that have caused the peasants to come together in solidarity.

st: What do you think is your greatest success so far?

Jean-Baptiste: The peasants now understand that they are the actors for change in their own lives. They've come to understand that together, they can change the way they live. They've come to understand that they can create their own destiny -- that it's not something created by someone else and imposed on them. There's a Haitian proverb: "What man makes, he can remake." People, human beings, have degraded the environment, and human beings need to repair it.

Grist: You currently chair the national council on peasant issues. Will this position help your work?

Jean-Baptiste: I joined this commission with great hope. But alas, those hopes have not been realized, as the new government does not truly have proposals to help the peasants. It's possible that I am going to have to denounce this government, because they are fooling the people.

Grist: Of the many challenges facing the land and people of Haiti today, what do you cons
ider to be the most pressing?

Jean-Baptiste: The destruction of the environment is the greatest problem facing Haiti today. At the time of Haiti's independence , it was 80 percent covered with forest. Today, less than 2 percent is forest. That situation is threatening daily life in Haiti, and you can see this in the terrible destruction caused by the flooding after [tropical storm Jeanne] last year. Agricultural production in the country has fallen to an extremely low level, and the peasantry is dependent on imported food, which plunges them into extreme poverty. Haiti now produces only 40 percent of the food we eat. In addition, we have the terrible problem of political instability. It's difficult to make a list of priorities -- we have to deal with these problems all at once.

Grist: What will this award mean for your work?

Jean-Baptiste: Because it is a prize for the environment, we will invest it in the environment. We will create programs for water management, and increase
our efforts to produce more food and trees at the same time. We'll develop more and distribute more natural pesticides and fertilizers, and invest part of the prize in different sources of alternative energy.

Michelle Nijhuis is a freelance writer living outside of Paonia, Colo.

© 2005, Grist Magazine, Inc. All rights reserved.
© 2005 MSNBC.com

URL: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/7709150/

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