November 18, 2016
By Stephen Bartlett (Of Other Worlds)
Haiti was beaten down once again on October 5, 2016 by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew, yet grassroots leaders remain unbowed, voicing messages both of warning and hope. Social movement leaders who live and work in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, are grateful to have “dodged the bullet” this time but many have family and organizational members in the impacted areas of the greater south and far northwest and are scrambling to help them find shelter, medical treatment, food, and potable water. The coordinator of the national peasant organization Tet Kole (heads together), Rosnel Jean-Baptiste, reported dozens of deaths among its members in several communes of the greater south departments of Haiti. The death toll nationwide is at least 1,100 and the long- term impact on agriculture that still nourishes most Haitians will likely bring serious consequences on nutrition and human health in the medium term.
Nevertheless, In spite of the extreme hardships and difficulties confronting Haitians, it is inspiring to observe an amazing capacity for human dignity and positive individual and collective action, even in the midst of widespread suffering. In the hard- hit southern Haiti commune of Chardonnieres, a 69 year old farmer told Annol Phylidor, the director of an agricultural support organization Action de Careme, “I am a rough farmer. I did all I could and made use of every opportunity to build my house, educate my children and live a peaceful life. In one day, this hurricane carried everything away. I still have my dignity. I cannot risk that by using violence to get some food. If those who bring aid cannot organize it such that there is a dignified distribution of food, it would be better for them to just leave with their aid and leave us at the mercy of God.”
The Popular Democratic People’s Movement (MPDP), an organization long in the struggle to transform Haiti’s political, economic and social conditions, published a declaration two days after the hurricane struck. The declaration asks those executing the response and the local authorities to “hold their responsibilities and patriotic courage in their two hands to correctly coordinate and manage this emergency and rehabilitation, in dignity and transparency, without favoritism, nor pressure. MPDP advises both the central and local authorities to get through this emergency phase as quickly as possible and quickly begin the rehabilitation of areas and regions that were hit. This is the only approach that will empower victims to take their lives in their own hands and do away with the mentality of being ‘victims.’
Haitians did not sit passively by before and during the storm. In one rural town, people donned motorcycle helmets and confronted the deadly winds to rescue and protect the elderly and children in imminent threat of injury or death. Many of the buildings, churches, and schools designated by local authorities as shelters prior to the storm, were themselves destroyed by the 145 mph winds and flying trees. This led to a number of additional deaths and left countless people exposed to the elements and flooding that followed with the monsoon rains that followed the hurricane. In addition to serious flooding, these heavy rains have meant that people have been exposed soaking wet conditions day and night. The outdoor kitchen of a Haitian colleague whose roof stayed put in rural Grand Anse has been the site of 25 people standing packed together all night long to keep out of direct exposure to the rain. An elderly woman unable to walk has had to be carried from her sick bed each time the rains start again. Children were observed sleeping fitfully outdoors soaking wet in a landscape that by day looks like a barren moonscape. The only comparable event in recent Haitian history was of course the massive earthquake of January 12, 2010 that struck the capital city and nearby areas, killing an estimated 200,000.
Kettly Alexandre, a leader of the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP) said “Matthew dealt a severe blow to Haitians who have been working for so many years to find solutions to the many problems we face.” These problems are well known to those familiar with Haiti: extreme impoverishment, international occupations and interventions in Haiti’s internal affairs, weak institutions and governance, and corruption in high places. Policies hammered in place, such as so-called “free” trade regimes and economic structural adjustments imposed by the U.S. and Europe, have resulted in forced rural to urban migration, ballooning the population of the towns and cities, especially Port-au-Prince. Meanwhile those remaining in the rural areas, especially those with strong local organizations, continue to struggle for access to education, healthcare, and markets. The lack of holistic rural and agricultural development, they know, creates a vicious cycle of rural flight which creates conditions that lead to desperate decisions by rural people such as widespread charcoal production that lead to the continual degradation of the soils and forest cover. The U.N. MINUSTAH security forces are across Haiti looked upon increasingly as an occupying force. Cholera imported by MINUSTAH soldiers has sickened up to one million Haitians, and killed at last count nearly 10,000. Cholera following the hurricane is on the increase in the impacted area due to a widespread lack of potable water. Kettly Alexandre summed up with a tone of irony tinged with a sense of injustice: “With all the problems we face already, Haiti really did not need hurricane Matthew. In this context, we don’t even know who to blame.”
Lenz Jean-Francois, a psychologist and social justice advocate who worked as a trauma counselor following the 2010 earthquake, while awaiting a mission to do the same in the south, asserted that “there is a deepening impact on the Haitian psyche” of the grinding ills plaguing the country in recent months and years. “Many youth are fleeing the country for places like Chile, Colombia, or Brazil. There is a lot of despair. Organizations advocating for structural changes are weakened as leaders devote more energy to secure the well being of their families, or to deal with other personal problems.”
Peterson Derolus of the Mining Justice Collective (Kolectif Justis Min, KJM) said:
“We can see already how the corporations interested in seizing land are ready to use the Matthew disaster to take advantage and rush their agendas forward. One example: a representative of Newmont Mining corporation after previously being run out of the area by angry local people, returned bearing food aid to hand out in communities where Newmont is attempting to gain mining access. “
Fabienne Jean, the coordinator of FONDAMA (Hand to Hand Foundation) a network of Haitian farmer and allied organizations, asserted: “This disaster could be used as an opportunity to hasten the consolidation of large scale projects that involve land seizures. Haitian agriculture has always been its greatest strength, and Haitian land must be in the hands of Haitian farmers to produce healthy food and contribute to the development of the country.” Jean Mathulnes Lamy, a leader of the farming communities of ‘Ile a Vache’ regrets the wholesale concession of his native island by the Haitian government for the expansion of an extensive tourism enclave, taking over agricultural lands with no regard to the customary use of that land by local farmers who have nourished themselves from farming for generations. “We denounce plans for building an airport for tourists on the island, when the entire mainland of southern Haiti has no airport, and is now in ruins from the hurricane. People are not taking these threats sitting down.”
Ricot Jean-Pierre, Director of Land Rights Struggles for PAPDA stated:
“Hurricanes and earthquakes will certainly strike again, but given the historical role Haiti has played, achieving the first free Republic in the New World, and supporting with arms and soldiers Simon Bolivar’s revolution against Spain under the condition that slavery be abolished in the newly independent republics, Haiti will make history again one day, whether it takes 10 years or 100. There is too much spirit here to count Haiti out.”