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Life Improves in the EcoVillages

Education. Enrollment at the school has grown from 170 last year to 267 this year. A new 7th grade classroom was added. 

The thirst for learning is contagious. Parents are now clamoring for adult literacy classes so that they can learn to read and help their kids in school.

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Electricity.  It doesn’t look like much, but a pole can be a beautiful thing.  Our partners at the Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) in Boston approved a grant to bring electricity to the six EcoVillages this year.  The power is now on! There is a pole next to the community center building in each village which provides light at night.  Residents must buy a meter to bring power to their own homes, which some have already done.  Residents are already imagining how their lives might change.

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Water. Wells in two of the villages were broken last year. UUSC paid to have them fixed.  Now there is nearby water for everyone. Clean clothes feel good.

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Food. Everywhere you look there is food: congo beans, cassava, plantains, papaya, bananas, peppers, cabbage, squash.  You even hear chickens peck and goats bleat and an occasional pig grunt.  The days of empty pots and lean harvests are behind them – at least for now. 

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Collaboration.  Parents understand that they must coordinate their efforts to grow food for school lunches.  Thanks in part to a grant from PATH (Atlanta’s Presbyterian Answer to Hunger) new school gardens have been planted, expanding their contribution dramatically. Hot, organic meals are served to the students every day of the week. Cassava came in this month, cabbage next week and squash in November.  As a result, the school budget for food has been slashed so that precious funds can be allocated elsewhere.

When asked about his life in the village, one man replied matter-of-factly, “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not.” In other words, for many life has returned to familiar routines.  The struggle for basics -- survival and safety and a place to belong – is being replaced by the struggle to get ahead.  You know -- normalcy. 

Bracing for Irma

My brother Sam French and his family have lived near the beach in Puerto Rico for 45 years.  Many hurricanes have passed over.  For the first time, they may face an evacuation order today as Irma bears down. There is fear in PR.  My extended family is full of anxiety for their safety. 

After Puerto Rico, Irma will visit Hispaniola. 

The EcoVillages of the central plateau of Haiti are about to be hit if current projections bear out.  The good news is that the 60 families should be safe in their reinforced concrete homes.  They have a school that opened this week for the new year.  Now, every grade has their own classroom.  The Haiti EcoVillage School Partnership has partnered with them to improve their lives in this way.

The news may not be so good for their livelihoods.  Families live garden-to-mouth from the food they grow in the ½ acre outside their front doors.  Mark Hare describes their gardens as “their grocery store, pantry and refrigerator combined.”

In addition, each village has planted new cash crops of moringa or cassava & peanuts, while 3 villages have built enclosures and bought goats to raise funds to support the school.  Our partnership has funded these cash crops by providing loans through their credit union. 

When hurricane Mathew devastated the western part of Haiti 10 months ago, winds were strong enough in the central plateau to disturb their gardens and make it harder to feed their families.  Irma is on a more direct path.  I can only imagine the fear in Haiti, too.  I feel anxiety for their well-being.

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In April we met all of the women of the EcoVillage households as Jeanine Calia shook hands with each as she passed out gift boxes sent from women in Atlanta.  Everyone of village women is a survivor of the 2010 earthquake (and years in tent cities) that deprived them of everything they had.  Their faces show the strain from living always on the edge. They are tough. They are resilient. They will survive Irma, too.  The unknown is what toll it will take on them.

I invite you, as you go through your day, to think of these friends.  See their faces in your mind. Embrace their fear with them. I admire their toughness, their resilience. I will accompany them as best I can from the comforts of my home.  And, when the storm moves on toward our homeland and we feel the fear and anxiety for ourselves, I will remember them.  I hope you will, too.

Gordon French

Examining the cost of poverty


“I am reluctant to do work in Haiti.  Our congregation's mission project there failed because Haitians would not sustain it.” 

We heard this sentiment expressed at our first meeting in July 2013. We determined at the beginning of this project that this school must be self-sustaining.

Now in our fourth year, we have been successful in almost every way.  We have met our fundraising goals.  We are on track to complete classroom construction next year. The school consistently meets the requirements of the Ministry of Education. We have connected with the families and children, and we hear their passionate gratitude and determination. We have formed strong bonds with our partners at UUSC and MPP.  MPP has been a reliable project manager. We have built loving relationships among members of our three congregations in Atlanta.

Sustainability remains elusive.

Oh, we’ve had a reasonable plan all along.  We will meet the requirements of the Ministry of Education which, by law, is required to pay the teachers.  We know this works because the school we visited at Basin Zim, in a rural area about 10 miles away, has been a “national school” for 30 years.  So, if/when the MOE nationalizes the EcoVillage school, it will have the financing it needs.  But the government of Haiti is short on resources.  It is behind in supporting the schools it has already nationalized, set back by the year-long period when there was no president or functioning government.  Furthermore, the whole process of nationalizing a school is fraught with local politics and cronyism.

The second long-term resource requirement is food, which the government does not subsidize.  Again, there has been a plan.  The school has been assigned a large field where parent volunteers could raise food.  This has worked with a smaller-scale kitchen garden that puts vegetables on the children’s lunch table now.  But this, too, has been plagued by problems of organization and drought and the cost of fencing to provide security--animals and people are hungry.

The underlying problem is clear: The villagers are very poor.  The region they inhabit is very poor. They have few sources of income.  Now that they have shelter and can grow food to feed themselves, they can ask the next question: how do I improve my life for myself and my family?  Sending children to school is part of the answer.  Can they earn income too?

Chavannes and MPP met in an assembly of the villagers after our visit in April.  They proposed options for ways that villagers can both earn income and support the school.  After deliberations, each village agreed to create one or more agribusiness cooperatives, allowing each village to borrow from the EcoVillage credit union based on a business plan developed within the village.  Proceeds from the businesses will be split between people in the villages and the school. Here is what villagers have agreed to.

1. Raise goats.  For the past 3 years the goat program – launched by ACG -- has provided a goat for each family to raise, with the goat belonging to the school.  It has raised some money for the school .  Three villages have agreed to launch full-scale goat production, which includes building an enclosure, consolidating the existing goats and buying more, raising forage, tending the goats, and taking them to market.

2. Cultivate moringa. Every family in the EcoVillages grows their own moringa plants to increase the nutrition of their meals.  Four villages have agreed to farm moringa for the market.  Each will cultivate ½ hectare (about an acre) and MPP will farm an additional 2 hectares.  Parents who live in the community outside the EcoVillages will be offered the opportunity to participate in this project.

3. Cultivate cassava and peanuts.  Recent El Nino drought has raised awareness of the impact of global warming and the need for drought resistant crops.  Cassava (also called manioc) and peanuts are companion crops that are drought resistant. Three villages have committed to raising these crops on community land and all of the villages have expressed some interest.

These projects require a capital investment of $18,730, which is the total amount that will be borrowed by the villagers.  Loans will be repaid in 4 years.  ACG, UUSC and MPP agreed to divert $16,000 earmarked for fencing the school farm.  ACG has agreed to send an additional $2730 to fully fund the projects.  Repayment of the loans will allow the credit union to reinvest in future development.

After the loans are repaid, the projected annual net profit for all the EcoVillage agribusinesses will be about $11,000.  60% of the profits will go to the school and 40% to the 60 families in the villages.

We are encouraged that the villagers – all of whom are parents to school children – have agreed to take on this effort.  It gives them something tangible to do for the future of their families which determines the future of the school. If successful, this step begins to provide a financial foundation for the school. This is the reason that the partners have chosen to fund the effort.

Now, stop for a moment and look at the numbers and what they say about poverty.  Even after 5 years of effort, this plan accounts for about 1/3 of the annual cost for feeding 160 children.  And take home pay for families? An average of $75 per year per family.

In the end, will our school project prove to be unsustainable? If so, it won’t be because the villagers haven’t worked hard and tried their best. It won’t be because we at ACG are not creative enough or persistent enough.  It won’t be because MPP was an unreliable partner or has given up on the people.  It will be because of the intractable poverty.  Poverty: the reason we took on this project in the first place. We were determined to give kids a chance in the face of the poverty. We knew school was the chance to break the cycle of poverty begetting more poverty.  Do these children deserve a chance to break out of this poverty? 

And so, we come full circle.

Should we build a school? Yes.

Should we try to make it sustainable? Yes.

Is success guaranteed? No.

Pray for them and us.  We all need it.