Se Kouto Sel Ki Konnen (Sa Ki Nan Ke Yam

By Joe Romano,
Marketing Manager

Translation: Only the knife when it penetrates knows what is truly in the heart of the yam.

—Haitian kreyol proverb

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti just outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Haiti has one of the highest population densities in the world and the earthquake struck a city that is home to over two million people. “Nobody knows how many bodies are buried in the rubble — 200,000, 300,000?” wondered Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue. “Who knows the overall death toll?”

More than 600,000 people are homeless in the capital’s metro area, and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told the Associated Press that “getting them water, and food, and a shelter is our top priority.”

Hour by hour, the press catalogues the devastation — in lives lost, property destroyed, and families displaced — by any standard it is clear that the problem is immense.

Americans are undertaking vast humanitarian aid efforts, and as such it might seem like a time to put politics aside. Perhaps though, this is the very time to penetrate to the heart of our relationship with the country of Haiti.

The people of Haiti have not always fared well at the hands of American aid, which often focuses on delivering funds to corrupt governments and the privileged classes in Haiti and not to the peasants who have historically suffered at their hands. Even a cursory look at history makes this clear.

As a result, Haiti’s poor have either eked out a meager existence in sprawling urban ghettos and rural towns, or have illegally escaped, often into the Dominican Republic, which is the Spanish-speaking country that shares roughly half of the island Hispaniola with Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians work as undocumented slave-laborers in camps called bateys on the sugar cane plantations there.

In the bateys, according to the Miami Herald, the pay is “insufficient to provide even one dignified meal per day.” Because they are undocumented, Haitian workers are unable to leave the batey territory, where they live under “horrifying conditions.” According to the UN Development Program, two thirds lack access to clean water. One third of the children lack access to education, and for the rest there are many other barriers to attendance. Only seven percent have a dispensary or rural clinic. At least sixteen percent of the workers have never received any type of medical assistance in their lives. And these are the conditions the poorest Haitians are escaping to.

Most of the sugar produced in these bateys is owned by Domino Sugar, an American-owned company that sells two-thirds of the 156 pounds of white sugar consumed, on average, by each American every year.

The bateys are only one tiny example of injustice resulting from centuries-long US self-interest in Haiti.  According to Grassroots International, not only has democracy has been undermined by repeated US military interventions and support for murderous dictators, but cheap American food exports, especially rice, systematically destroyed peasant production. In the 1980s, USAID forced Haiti to exterminate the native Creole pig—the major source of insurance for peasants against famine.  Relief aid cannot simply import external foodstuffs, but should purchase goods from Haitian farmers in parts of the country left intact by the quake, thus bolstering local agriculture.  The best aid strategy — in Haiti and elsewhere — is to work directly with the people most affected. Emergency relief, like all aid, needs to be led by the communities themselves and move from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Haiti has a strong history of konbit, the kreyol word for collaboration and cooperation, and has hundreds of cooperatives of all kinds. It is a large and growing sector that comprises everything from coffee and papaya production to banking and credit cooperatives.

According to the Christian Center for Integrated Development, in the Nord-Oueste (Northwest) and Artibonite regions alone there are hundreds of women from fourteen extremely poor communities who comprise a network of rural cooperatives. These co-ops pool diverse and sparse resources and make micro-loans that may fund a larger purchase of a cart or donkey, so that a vendor selling salt at a roadside, for example, is able to carry more down to the intersection on a given day. This might mean the difference between that person being able to send only two of her children to school or being able to afford to send all six. They also learn to manage their land and their money, skills which enable them to repay their micro-loans. These small, mostly rural co-ops provide economic security and sustainable food sources for the poorest communities all over Haiti.

The co-ops act as a bastion for social justice, including gender equality. While there are some men in the cooperatives it is the women, who  have been traditionally undervalued, underrepresented, undereducated, and underemployed, who are serving as leaders, significant contributors to and benefactors of these community development initiatives.

The largest and most visible co-op collective is The Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) or Peasant Movement of Papay. It is the oldest and largest cooperative movement in Haiti. With 60,000 members this 35-year-old collective is situated in the central plateau. According to Grassroots International,” the mission of MPP is to educate and provide sound economic alternatives to the people of Haiti, while promoting environmental, sustainable, and renewable agriculture and gender equality.” No individuals may join MPP, only collectives or co-ops.

One of these co-ops is Kopa BwaFerye, a 50-acre sugar cane cooperative formed by Haitians who formerly labored in the bateys in the Dominican Republic. Pooling their land and resources, the cooperative model helps empower those formerly crushed by the system, offering an economic model based on cooperation as a means to self-reliance.

GreenStar and other co-ops across the country will be donating to the Cooperative Emergency Fund of the Cooperative Development Fund. That money will go directly to rebuild and strengthen co-ops that work to empower the peasantry in Haiti.

 As the Haitian proverb points out, we Americans cannot be content to look only at the surface of our relations with other countries; we must cut to the center. We must be sure that we are offering aid and not simply acting in our own interest. We must monitor aid efforts carefully and speak out if they are wrongheaded.

As cooperators and GreenStar member-owners, the deeper we cut into it, the more we learn about the compassionate heart at the center of this, our cooperative movement.

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