The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.
Onward: UUSC Member Support Centers Self-Determination of Haitian Villagers
By Michael Kourabas on February 25, 2019
A little more than one year ago, I traveled to Haiti to meet with our partner, Mouvman Peyizan Papay (Peasant Movement of Papaye; MPP) to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing UUSC’s long-term projects there—the EcoVillages and the EcoVillage School.
The idea for the EcoVillages was conceived after the 2010 earthquake, when our partner, MPP, ended up housing many people displaced from the city at its training center in the rural central plateau. Many of those displaced expressed a desire not to return to Port-au-Prince, so UUSC, MPP, and a group of Presbyterian churches in Atlanta developed the idea and funding for a series of self-sustaining villages to be built on land owned by MPP.
Ultimately, six were constructed, each with 10 houses. MPP used its agroecology expertise to train the villagers on sustainable farming techniques and each village has a garden that serves as a food and income source for the village. As the villages grew, the need for a local school was identified, and we and the Atlanta Church Group (ACG) agreed to fund its construction and operation. That school now serves children from both the villages and the surrounding area, as it is the only public school nearby.
On that trip, I was confronted by the “enormity of the struggle” facing the EcoVillagers and their neighbors in Haiti’s devastatingly poor Central Plateau.
I found that the wells in EcoVillages Two and Five had not been able to produce any water for more than a year. As a result, villagers from Village Five, according to my own observation in a blog I wrote last year, “who want drinking water must walk 30 minutes to Village Six, where a UUSC grant recently repaired another broken well, and then carry it back home.” This burden often falls to the women and children of the EcoVillages, and I saw a number of young girls carrying water back from Village Six in the 100-degree heat.
In addition to the broken wells, “[e]very village but Village One also lack[ed] electricity,” leading to a prevailing feeling of insecurity among villagers. The lack of electricity also impeded the children’s education—undermining the aim of our other project, the EcoVillage School—by making nighttime study difficult, and it prevented adults from working or socializing once the sun set on the vast Haitian plateau. Finally, absent a connection to the electrical grid, many income-generating opportunities—a vital need in the villages, where jobs are scarce—were beyond the reach or even imagination of those in the EcoVillages.
Addressing these needs would require significant additional resources, which neither UUSC nor MPP possessed. So, upon returning from that October 2017 trip UUSC turned where we always turn when we see a critical need on-the-ground that we are well-positioned to address: our dedicated supporters. As always, UUSC’s members came through, and we were able to support the connection of all six villages to the electrical grid and to fix the two broken wells in Villages Two and Five.
In November, the Atlanta Church Group returned to Haiti to follow-up on our October 2017 assessment. The changes ACG observed, and those reported to us by MPP, are significant.
There is an optimism in the villages that, to ACG, is indicative of the fact that the residents now have more control over their own lives. Verona Val, MPP’s Executive Director, echoed this observation and the benefits it has afforded to MPP: Unlike in the project’s start-up years, the constant flow of requests for assistance from the villagers—which forced MPP, a peasant organizer, into the role of landlord—have ceased.
In its most recent report back to UUSC, MPP elaborated on the benefits that resulted from the electrification of the villages, which MPP characterized as “destroy[ing] the barrier of access to electricity in rural areas.” This project has “changed the lives of all residents and families in the villages,” MPP told us, “from the moment [they] get up early in the morning [and] work until they [go] to bed at night.” Life is now “safer and better for all residents.” In fact, the changes have been so dramatic that “most  residents of the EcoVillages can remember and describe the wonderful instant the lights came on.”
When I have visited with the EcoVillage residents in the past, I’ve been reminded that they all came to rural Haiti from vastly different lives in the busy capital of Port-au-Prince, where their homes—those destroyed in the 2010 earthquake—likely all had electricity. As MPP put it, “For most of [the villagers], the instant they turned on the lights still carries a lot of emotion for them, because since they left Port-au-Prince after the quake, this is the first time they are able to see light in their homes.” I only wish I could have been there for that moment.
Finally, we just received even more encouraging news about the EcoVillage School: At long last, the school has been granted a certificate of nationalization! It would be hard to overstate the importance of this development. As I explained here, the only way the school could be sustainable in the long-term would be for it to qualify as a “government school,” “thereby shifting hefty operating costs from MPP to the government.” In order to qualify, the school would have to overcome years of construction delays, an unpredictable currency, and a national government that has all but forgotten the Central Plateau. And yet…
Most of the 267 students—in grades K-7, each with their own classroom! —are now wearing blue uniforms, the official uniforms of national schools. There will be a new name for the school, “The National School of the EcoVillages of Colladere,” and credentials for all of the teachers have been examined and approved by the Haitian Ministry of Education. Although there are still steps to be taken before the school becomes financially supported by the state, its certification marks the crossing of what once seemed an insurmountable hurdle to sustainability.
Of course, challenges remain and, Haiti being Haiti, nothing is certain. However, we have seen MPP, the EcoVillages, and the EcoVillage School projects make really significant strides this past year.
Photo Credit: iStock – rqsinboxru