In February, I was invited by CSANR-affiliated WSU alum and good friend Jason Streubel to visit Haiti for an agricultural summit he was hosting on behalf of his new organization, Convoy of Hope (CoH). Jason was hired immediately after graduating WSU with his Ph.D. in soil science last year to help CoH “build a sustainable agriculture plan” to support its Children’s Feeding Initiatives around the world. They didn’t make it easy by assigning Haiti as his first challenge. CoH has fed more than 50,000 children per day in Haiti alone for the past 20 years!
Along with Jason and a team comprised of both local Haitians and a couple of other “American experts”, I visited several communities and sites both in the plain near Port-au-Prince and in the mountains to the north. We visited with local farmers and leaders and held a number of discussions regarding the circumstances in Haiti, the existing CoH program and capacity, and what was really needed to make a difference in building a sustainable agriculture and food system in Haiti.
I walked away with two overall impressions from this visit. The first was how profoundly similar the landscape was to Central Washington. In spite of much higher annual rainfall (more similar to Seattle), the landscape looks not unlike the view you might see standing in either the Wenatchee or Yakima Valleys. While much has been written about the deforestation of Haiti, it’s still quite stunning to see it in person – and to see how important protecting fragile environments can be.
The second impression I left with was that there are many Haitian nationals who have the knowledge, talents, and entrepreneurial skills to provide leadership for developing a sustainable Haitian agriculture system. In fact, most of the best ideas discussed during our summit came from the Haitian participants. What is missing is the investment capacity and connection to the “knowledge generation machine” (i.e. Universities) that most successful economies take for granted.
For instance, it became quite clear in our visits with the Haitian Rice Federation that the farmers were eager to increase production for local, value-added markets and also to utilize the best available management practices to improve productivity and protect soils. They just needed to be connected to the technical capacity to know how to do these things for themselves. One of the key elements of guidance that we provided to Jason at the summit was that CoH needed to use it’s “buying power” to both help create reliable markets for Haitian farmers and also to facilitate the development of an Extension-style system to support farmer innovation.
Jason and his Haitian staff have followed up on these suggestions to an astonishing degree in a few short months since the summit. He reported to me that in May and June, they hosted four farmer workshops on sustainable production practices, including nutrient management practices, soil-building practices such as compost use, low-input and non-pesticide pest management strategies, and farm planning. The topics were identified as important by the nearly 900 local farmers that participated in the four workshops! Jason said the demand for follow-up is so high they are already planning for the next round.
There is no question that building a sustainable agriculture and food system in Haiti remains a tall order and it will be a long time before Haitian children won’t need internationally funded feeding programs. The combination of ecological devastation and ineffective institutional capacity make it difficult for the Haitian agriculture community to ensure their own future. However, for a country that has been without hope for a long time, I think we’re seeing the beginning of a sustainable and hopeful future, and I’m excited to see what one WSU grad is doing about it.