ecovillages

Across the Divide

 Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner, Islands & Island Nations (Haiti), at a traditional konbit--a communal work day spent building walls to conserve the soil.

The divides are many.

We are the richest nation per capita in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is the poorest.

We speak English. They speak Kreyol and French.

Our lives are aided (dominated?) by complex, ubiquitous technology.  The EcoVillages don’t even have electricity.

We drive and walk fast.  They walk everywhere at a relaxed amble.

We live in splendid isolation behind the walls of our houses, where most of the faces we see each day are on our devices.  They live interlocked lives with their neighbors, with whom they collect water, raise large families and even share outhouses.

We demand security from police, EMTs, retirement funds, Social Security, warranties, contracts, and armies.  They have no security except for the good will of their neighbors.

We grouse about pot-holes near us.  The nearest paved road to the EcoVillages is 5 miles away.

We shop at Kroger, Publix, Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market, Sprouts, Whole Foods, depending on what specifically we want. Plus, we eat out a lot.  They eat what can grow in their yard gardens. 

We watch AcuWeather forecasts and movement of temperatures during the day.  They pray for a safe hurricane season that doesn’t level their crops.

We are God’s Frozen Chosen, adhering to the rules of the Book of Order, but keenly aware of an elusive God whom we cannot detect with our scientific instruments and whose presence in the world seems confusing.  They are part Catholic, part charismatic, part voodoo, 100% believers that God controls their fate.

We frown a lot. They smile a lot.

I know.  I am going on, but I could keep going.  The differences are many and they are fundamental.

From the beginning of our project to build a school for children who would otherwise not learn to read, we articulated a commitment to bridge that gap, to build relationships.  We intended to know these people, to understand their struggles and their joys.  We decided to learn from their wisdom and to authentically present ourselves so that we could be known to them, too. For 5 years we have dispatched delegations to meet, learn and share. Ask anyone who has been and they will tell you about the life-enriching experience. And our Haitian partners know something more about us, as represented by the child who reaches out to touch our skin to learn if it is real like her own skin.

Last year we exchanged art between the children at the EcoVillage school and our own children.  We said, “Draw a picture about your life.”  The art about their lives has hung on our walls for our children to see.  Our children’s life art hangs on their school walls now. Photos show curious children looking at the others’ images, wondering about their lives.

This year, to bridge the distance, we have invited the founder of the EcoVillages to come to us.  He is a man worth knowing. 

When you meet him you’ll be drawn to the smile, in part because you’ll see that his 70-year-old face has spent a lot of its time smiling. This from a man who has avoided assassination through exile and has spent all of his life living among some of the poorest people on earth. There is wisdom to be learned from someone so courageous.

You will see a man of the world who has traveled to Lima and Durbin to contribute to United Nations conferences on climate change, Paris and San Francisco to receive honors for his work.  Yet he still lives in Papay among the people he spends his life helping. There are insights to be gleaned from someone so broad.

You will hear from a man who has wielded political power as adviser to Haiti’s president, but has never compromised the well-being of his people for personal gain.  Can we ever get too much from people of integrity?

So come meet Chavannes.  Broaden your experience and understanding.

At the same time, let him learn about us through your presence.  You will be one of the people he talks about when he returns to talk to the families in the EcoVillages and the children at the school.  Your presence will help build that bridge of understanding and respect that holds the promise of a better tomorrow for all of God’s people, Haitian and American, rich and poor, smilers and frowners. 

Hear Chavannes at Emory University Candler School of Theology, Thursday, 4/12   5:30-7:30pm

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.

Women.jpg

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.