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Haiti, already headline global news following the assassination of its president last month, suffered disaster again on August 14th, when those headlines switched to the 7.2-magnitude earthquake.
The quake struck the southern area of the country, causing significant destruction, more than 2,200 deaths, and devastating rural parts of Haiti where some of the region’s poorest people live and work.
I am a Baha’i and the co-founder and president of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) in Haiti. While the SFA is not a Baha’i initiative, I have tried to draw on Baha’i principles in designing our community-based approach to rural development, especially the central Baha’i principle of the oneness of humanity, as Abdu’l-Baha described it:
… every era hath a spirit; the spirit of this illumined era lieth in the teachings of Baha’u’llah. For these lay the foundation of the oneness of the world of humanity and promulgate universal brotherhood.
There are also individual Baha’is involved in our major implementing partner, the Raising Haiti Foundation, and one of our major donors, the Julian Grace Foundation – although neither is designated a Baha’i initiative per se. Now, we have all come together to help the one branch among our seven SFA locations that was severely affected by the earthquake.
For the past eight years the Smallholder Farmers Alliance has been working with around 1,000 farm families in the rural Haitian community of Laborde, using an innovative agroforestry model to build farmers’ capacity to improve their yields and incomes. I should note that this model was also inspired by the legacy of my mentor and fellow Baha’i, the forester and conservationist Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889 – 1982).
Located a few miles north of the hard-hit coastal city of Les Cayes, these families also felt the full impact of the earthquake. Although not yet widely reported, rural areas in this region suffered extensive damage to as much as 50 per cent of homes and farm buildings; large numbers of people were injured
in an area that lacks any semblance of adequate medical services.
Based on the experience when Hurricane Mathew hit this same area in 2016, post-disaster support does not usually extend much beyond city limits.
A Nation of Farmers
Haiti, however, is a nation of farmers. With a population of close to 11.5 million, it is estimated that Haiti has close to one million small-scale family farms that range from a half hectare to a maximum of two hectares (or five acres). With an average of five people per household, farmers represent a significant demographic – yet these “smallholder” farmers, to use the common term, have been largely abandoned and left to their own devices for generations.
When the farmers in a largely agricultural nation are not supported, that nation will never prosper. But when they do get a helping hand to improve their own conditions, farmers become leaders in improving the overall health and prosperity of their own extended communities. As Abdu’l-Baha said: “The fundamental basis of the community is agriculture …”
When supported, such farm communities, in turn, become more resilient and able to organize and assist one another following natural disasters. Laborde is a case in point in terms of resilience. The farm leaders in this SFA branch worked with the agronomist responsible for the operation there to submit a two-part response plan within two days of the earthquake.
Haiti’s Urgent Plea After the Earthquake
The first part of the farmer’s plan asks for immediate emergency assistance, with the priorities set by the farmers as tents, food, medical care and water. They need tents because so many homes were destroyed or damaged, and many people are sleeping in the open in the midst of heavy rains. They need food because markets have been disrupted, particularly for staples like rice, which comes from outside the immediate area. They need medical care because there is no medical facility in the immediate area, and injured farmers and their families need treatment for injuries and illnesses related to the earthquake. They need water because local wells and other natural sources turned red as a result of the earthquake, and so either bottled water or water treatment solutions will be necessary.
The second part of the farmers’ request was geared to long-term recovery, which they requested not be delayed until after the emergency response, as is so often the case. They have asked for crop seed to replace what was lost in the earthquake and to increase the SFA’s seed bank program to include more farmers in the area and ultimately grow everything they need locally; pumps, so that irrigation can be expanded and yields improved; livestock to replace animals lost in the earthquake and to increase the impact of the SFA goat program; and planting more fruit trees in the existing SFA nurseries to replace lost trees and have a higher output of breadfruit, coconuts, mangoes and avocados.
So far the SFA, with support from our partners, donors and a general public appeal, has delivered several thousand hot meals to Laborde that were prepared and donated by World Central Kitchen in nearby Les Cayes; provided the first 2,000 pounds of rice as we investigate sources for much larger volumes to follow; delivered a small amount of bottled water in advance of the arrival in the next few days of 32,000 water purification tablets; supplied the first tarps in advance of a truck arriving shortly with over a ton of tarp material; and, conducted a preliminary medical assessment so that one of Haiti’s leading health providers, Project Medishare, can arrive on site in about a week with a team and the supplies necessary to conduct a clinic – with plans to transfer those who require further treatment to hospitals. Significant additional resources are being lined up now for both the emergency response and long-term recovery by the farmers.
In addition to the SFA farmers, we have a second operation in Les Cayes where three young Baha’is and two of their friends are providing support to NGOs and others coming to the city to offer emergency services.
In his book The Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah said “O ye rich ones on earth! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease.”
One group of Haitian farmers and their families have been steadily working their way out of poverty, but that progress was interrupted by an earthquake. They need your help now to get back on track. If you are moved to help, you can donate directly to the non-profit charities cited in this article, or go here to contribute to the SFA’s earthquake response operation: