I’m from Desarmes, a rural area in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley. I recently turned 60 years old, and Desarmes is still my home.
I worked for MCC for many years and currently I work for an organization called Konbit Peyizan pou Ranfòsman Kapasite Lokal, whose Haitian Kreyol name means Agricultural Collective for the Reinforcement of Local Capacity.
We work with participants in collectives, encouraging and organizing them to work together. Our primary focus is in food security and in reinforcing community capacity so that people are better able to produce what they need to eat.
One of the phenomena that really affects our work is climate change. For 15 years, more or less, we’ve observed that rain doesn’t fall in the way it used to. It rains when we don’t expect it, and then when it should rain, it doesn’t. This has affected agricultural production and has made it increasingly difficult for rural farmers to make a living and to have food to eat.
The level of water in streams has gone down significantly. We also sometimes have very strong winds and even hail, which we never used to see. There are more and more insects attacking plants.
"The income people receive from some of these trees might help them build a house or send their children to school."
So, with all of these problems, we have to find strategies to help us confront climate change. If not, the circumstances for rural farmers will just get more and more difficult with each year that passes.
We’re working with soil conservation so when it rains the soil will stay in the garden. By keeping the soil cool and damp, farmers can protect plants against drought. And we encourage them to prepare the soil earlier so they can plant whenever that first rain comes.
We urge people to use local seeds and to store seeds — not just to eat in difficult times, but also so they have a stock ready when it’s time to plant. Without this, we would be forced to depend on imported seeds from abroad, which aren’t adapted to the climatic conditions or the geography.
Then there’s reforestation. Trees are a really helpful way to respond to climate change.
We encourage and train people to produce seedlings in tree nurseries which are then distributed in the communities.
We use an agroforestry system so people can create a garden that produces food in the short term but also uses trees for long-term food security and economic security. For example, when people plant mango and lime trees, they’ll give fruit in a few years. But if they plant corn and vegetables at the same time, they’ll have food to eat more quickly.
When I was young, the deforestation crisis in Haiti had been going on for a long time already. There weren’t many trees in Desarmes. It was very hard to find firewood for cooking.
Because they’re in charge of cooking, women were the ones who had to walk up to three hours into the mountains just to find a little wood to burn. Instead of going to church on Sundays, they’d make this long trip to find wood, tie it up in a bundle on their heads and return to town. Then for a few days they’d have fuel for cooking.
Today Desarmes has changed. There are more trees in the area. There are more shady places for people to sit, and people have a greater appreciation for nature and trees. The income people receive from some of these trees might help them build a house or send their children to school.
There are farmers who have been participating in reforestation work for 30 years now, and they still have their trees as an economic resource. They know that every time they harvest fruit or wood from fast-growing trees, they can do it again in two or three years. Now land that didn’t used to grow anything is bringing them income.
I began working with MCC in 1983.
I was teaching and getting involved with the church. In those days, the church especially encouraged development work. They knew that one way for a Christian to follow Jesus was to accompany people in need, to help them build a better life. And they encouraged training so that leaders in the church would have the tools they needed to accompany the rest of the population.
When MCC looked to the churches to find local leaders for its growing reforestation and agricultural program in the Artibonite Valley, I was hired. I have been working in reforestation and agriculture since then.
Over the decades, MCC focused on the most vulnerable people in the most remote places. In 2019, this work transitioned into a separate, independent Haitian organization, Konbit Peyizan, and I became executive director.
"Our goal has always been to give people the tools to help them become independent."
Today, we still have the same mission. We want to go as far as possible to the places where people are the most disadvantaged. The last few years have been hard with a rise in insecurity and COVID-19. Gang violence can make travel from rural areas to cities unsafe and often impossible, so farmers can’t always sell the crops they’ve grown. We see the fact that Konbit Peyizan is still standing, despite all of these challenges, as a huge success.
We have a lot of work to do to help people adapt to and confront climate change. But we have seen people whose lives are different today because of our work, and we have a lot of hope.
Our goal has always been to give people the tools to help them become independent. These are simple techniques like not burning land to clear it and building gardens in such a way that the soil doesn’t wash away in the rain, giving the organic material time to decompose and make the soil rich.
After all, if you enrich your soil, your soil will enrich you too! If you nourish your soil, your soil will nourish you in return.
Jean-Remy Azor worked with MCC for 36 years before becoming executive director of MCC partner Konbit Peyizan.