Haiti: Celebrating the Jean Marie Vincent Center in Gros Morne
We have been writing a great deal about the multiple crises in Haiti as well as the treatment of migrants from Haiti in Mexico and at the United States border. Sometimes it feels as though keeping up with these very important issues takes time away from celebrating the wonderful work that is also happening in Haiti, in particular with our partners at the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center in Gros Morne. So, today we want to update on the activity of the JMV Center and also discuss a little bit how the program is fairing in light of the political and economic challenges the country is facing.
As a quick overview, our work with the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center began in 1999. At the time, we were called upon to support a community initiative to reforest a mountain slope on the edge of town. Erosion from the mountain was causing the river to silt up and led to mudslides during the rainy season. That mountain, Tet Mon, is now home to 200,000+ trees. It was an effort that launched the Center onto its current multifaceted programs to assist smallholder farmers and other families in the area. The programs all emerge in response to locally identified needs and strategies, though expertise on things like planting techniques to isolate pests infesting sweet potato harvests, or determining the optimal percentage of soy to put in chicken feed, is welcome from anywhere.
There are three broad areas of work, and multiple projects within each: Reforestation, material support and formations to small farmers throughout the communal sections of Gros Morne, and the gardens and facilities at the JMV Center itself. Despite the crisis impacting the country, which has been felt by everyone in Gros Morne in different ways, the program keeps going.
Every year, the tree nursery at the JMV Center and related satellite nurseries distribute 50,000 to 60,000 trees. The number of seedlings that make it from the Center and into the ground varies due to weather conditions. Having young trees prepped and ready to get into the ground when the rains come is always the goal. Drought or flooding, however, can ruin the best-laid plans.
Yet, over the last 5 years, the team has given out nearly 260,000 trees. The trees are distributed through community organizations and schools, and the delivery of trees is always accompanied with training about how to take care of the trees. In addition to reforestation trees, there is an emphasis on the delivery of fruit-bearing trees that provide both food for families and a potential source of income.
A particularly innovative project the agronomy team from the JMV Center is engaged in is Project Lorax. This project provides trees to families for the purpose of sustainable charcoal harvesting. Cutting trees for charcoal is often listed as one of the chief causes of deforestation in Haiti. Yet, the practice is necessary for many families to earn an income. Project Lorax is an effort to engage that reality but in a sustainable way. Trees are planted in three year cycles. Families that participate are offered incentives to care for the trees. At the end of the third year, the trees are ready for harvest. 40,000 sapling trees have been delivered over the past 3 years in Perou as a testing site.
The team from the JMV Center engages in training on a variety of themes. In recent years, the topics that have led to the greatest number of workshops are planting techniques to minimize weevil infestation in local harvests, planting yard and patio gardens (alongside participation with JMV Center’s seed bank), and water preservation (workshops on drip irrigation as well as maintenance and use of water cisterns).
Several years ago, a weevil infestation was destroying sweet potato crops throughout the communal sections of Gros Morne. Sweet potatoes are a staple crop for families in the area, and losing 40-50% of the plants was devastating to small farmers. The agronomy team at the JMV Center immediately went into action, using the JMV garden as a test site to develop planting techniques using special “weevil traps.” Over the last several years 2,000 families have benefited from agronomy team workshops on these planting techniques. Not only has the weevil infestation been contained, but bringing farmers into the program, the team has been able to also share additional knowledge about soil and water preservation, crop rotation, double digging garden plots, and so on. The result is that yields have increased.
The agronomy team has also worked with 2,200 families participating in the seed bank program. The seed bank purchases vegetable seeds at bulk prices, often in the “off-season” when prices are lower. It is also used for bean and corn deposits, cuttings for sweet potatoes and yams, and other tubers. In preparation for the planting seasons, the agronomy team organizes workshops to help families prepare yard and patio gardens, as well as prepare fields for planting. The seed bank provides the service of storage, and encourages, through the resulting lower cost for seed purchases, participation in formations through which sustainable techniques are given to farmers.
Sustainable water use is probably the biggest challenge facing small farmers. Rainfall is unpredictable, and extended periods of drought conditions are not uncommon. Over the last year, the agronomy team from the JMV Center has been doing trainings on drip irrigation that are accompanied by the installation of water cisterns (the water cisterns were the result of a donation from the Sisters of Mercy Haiti program).
The Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center
The bulk of Quixote Center resources that go to support the work of the JMV Center is actually expended keeping the infrastructure in place. This means purchasing fuel, purchasing project inputs like seed bags and root trainers, and covering the salaries of agronomy team members. At the heart of this work is the Center itself. The JMV Center is hosted on land donated by the Monfortan Brothers in honor of the last Father Jean Marie Vincent, a staunch advocate for peasant farmers who was gunned down in Port au Prince in 1994 during the last months of the Cedras’ coup regime.
Father Vincent’s vision for Haiti’s smallholder farmers was tied to education and liberation. Father Vincent eschewed a charity model of church engagement. He wanted to see Haiti’s farmers have access to the tools they needed to sustain their livelihoods, and he was willing to challenge the country’s elite to create the space for this to happen.
This is a vision that still animates the work of the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center, and that of the Quixote Center.
If you like the work we are doing in Haiti, you can donate to support it here.