Hope growing for Haiti farmers
Fish ponds provide food, irrigation for crops in fields
By MICHAEL NORTON
PANDIASSOU, Haiti -- All his life he farmed without hope of ever making
Today, Genold Mathieu brings tomatoes, lettuce and fish to the table for
and 14 children. The 10 school-age kids attend classes. And soon there will be a
hospital to treat them when they are ill.
His fortunes, and those of more than 20,000 others in Pandiassou, have
in the 2 1/2 years since a Roman Catholic monk inspired the farmers to build fish
Some people see the project as a model for restoring a measure of social
economic dignity to Haiti, a ravaged land that often seems hopelessly mired in
lethargy and despair.
So dramatic is the change that people in Pandiassou, three miles from the
city of Hinche, measure time as before or after the ponds.
Before, most years brought drought -- fatal to farming in a land made largely
by centuries of deforestation and land mismanagement. That meant unemployment,
hunger and the death of livestock. Even in a good year, a hardworking farmer
could earn only about $70 an acre from the single annual harvest.
Now, irrigation from the ponds allows three harvests a year, and farmers
make $800 on every acre from each harvest. Most have small plots ranging from a
half acre to 1 1/4 acres.
For the first time, Mathieu can grow tomatoes, lettuce and cabbage, not
Fish from the ponds add protein and taste to meals that used to consist solely of
millet or corn mush.
It all started with Brother Franklin Armand and the Little Brothers and
the Incarnation, a religious order he founded 22 years ago. The order, which has
100 religious members and 200 lay associates, bought land in the area and
persuaded the farmers to use it to build ponds that would serve their community.
Today, there are 29 ponds, from the size of a swimming pool to that of
field, stocked with tens of thousands of fish. When the rain falls, water accumulates
in the ponds, which feed an irrigation system for the fields.
``The ponds have saved our lives. We're beginning to see the light,'' said
Sauver Jean-Charles, 65.
The invigorated local economy allowed farmers to form a cooperative that
has 2,000 members. Most households comprise 10 or more people, including
large and extended families and laborers. With low-interest loans repayable over
20 years, 113 new homes have been built.
The cooperative employs a land surveyor, and members have access to legal
to settle land disputes. There is a service that rents oxen and plows.
Everyone credits the 51-year-old Armand.
``The word of God doesn't get along with empty bellies and seatless trousers,''
said, wearing his perpetual smile. ``Haiti is a small country. We can solve our
problems if we are rigorous, work hard and have vision.''
And a lot of help from friends abroad.
The European Union gave $800,000 for the pond and irrigation project. The
Development Program provided a $1 million grant.
The foundation of American philanthropist George Soros provides $170,000
year to schools founded by Armand -- a nursery school for 100 children and a
vocational and secondary school with 400 students.
Increasingly, their school breakfast and lunch comes from food grown locally,
giving hope that eventually the cooperative will support itself.
On Nov. 23, the co-op inaugurated a new freezer facility to store fish,
members hope to sell.
While agricultural production has fallen in most parts of Haiti, in Pandiassou
farms had increased production this year, up from 30 farms with higher output last
``We agreed to fund this project because people were already hard at work
said Michelle Pierre-Louis, the Soros foundation director in Haiti. ``One day, they
will be able to do without us.''