The Road to ‘Ivwa’

24 May

The Experimental Coffee Tree Nursery; photo courtesy my interpreter, Jacques Yoldy

The road to Ivoire begins with a right-hand turn from the coastal town of Mont Rouis, and rises steeply and windingly over a continuous bed of rocks, past chalk-coloured cliffs, stony fields and farm women with donkeys. It also leads from the kind of agricultural foreign aid projects that last a few years and may or may not work out very well to a vibrant, people-driven initiative that makes Ivoire, or Ivwa as people spell it in Creole, a truly special place.

It is part of a community of villages where crops are generally pretty good – last year’s severe drought taking a toll nonetheless – no-one goes hungry, water is filtered and clean, seeds are saved and stored to avoid paying the usual 200% interest rates for borrowing, and five schools allow children to study up to Grade 9 instead of Grade 2. There are even literacy classes for adults in the afternoons.

It is also a place where families are much smaller than usual in rural Haiti. “Before the organization,” said 30-year-old Marie- Clemita Jean- Baptiste, “there was a huge birthrate. Women were having children often and had really no control over their sexual domain.” Malnourishment, even kwashiokor, was not uncommon among children.

“Now,” said Marie Clemita, “ we have introduced family planning, the kind of plan that permits us to discuss with the whole family, to  say, this is we are going to proceed.”

The organization she was referring to is – in short form – OPD-8. Since 1994, the peasant farmers of the 8th section of the commune of Archahaie have been forging and refining this effective organization to bring about their own development, with guidance and encouragement from an NGO now known as Parternaires de Development Locale. It took two years of discussions and building small groups of 20 families into blocks, and the blocks into an association of about a thousand families. Together they set up the seed bank, a tool bank, improve their land and do reforestation. A dairy is next on the list.

OPD-8 is so in charge of its own community and regional development, they can actually take foreign aid projects that are not well designed and alter them so that they can be. Take the tool bank. A Canadian NGO called CECI donated the community a number of free tools, but instead of handing them out, OPD-8 sold them – at a subsidized price – to community farmers and used the money to buy more tools. This does a lot more than earn the organization some money; it removes the top-down, “White-Saviour complex” that is inevitably put into play when someone who is poor receives something for free from someone who isn’t.

With PDL, said Pierre Osmil Stiven, “we have been able to work together. We unite to plan the projects that need to be carried out. So we work together to decide what we will do, how much it will cost and what we will accomplish with the projects. There are always lots of discussions so that the final ideas are the ideas of each group, of the community and the NGOs.”

“On the contrary,” with other NGOs, he added, “we didn’t get round to discussions, or to planning what the project is really about. So it was them who imposed it – we’ll get together 500 people and we’ll do this, or that or the other.”

In Ivoire, the results are still coming in. But in many ways, they are  already as obvious as the enormous contrast between the beginning of the road to Ivwa – where farming is like cultivating a gravel pit – and the end: an undulating landscape of verdant foliage,  high up over the brilliant blue waves of the Caribbean Sea visible in the distance.

(A friend of mine made a short video of her journey to Ivoire last March.)

But at least, like the somewhat erroneously named dry Chaco of Paraguay, there were no deep trenches of treacherous puddles – like the one that once had me and an Equinox magazine photographer stuck for several hours in 1992.

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