Haiti is often seen as one of the unluckiest countries on earth. It has suffered exploitation by outside forces, misrule by its own leaders, staggering poverty and environmental degradation. It is prone to hurricanes and earthquakes. Haiti has also been ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Despite all this, ordinary Haitians are mobilizing to address the multifaceted challenges posed to natural resource management. So, for example, through the Association of Irrigators of Maury (AIM) in the small town of Desarmes, farmers have organized themselves to manage a system of irrigation canals. AIM’s efforts demonstrate that in the context of a weak, corrupt and centralized government, a community-based approach is the best option for the just management of scarce natural resources. This article demonstrates that community management of the irrigation system has been successful as a result of strong community education and clear organizational structures and responsibilities.
In January 2010, Haiti suffered a massive earthquake and a resulting humanitarian crisis. Aid poured in from all directions, and while many observers felt this was a significant opportunity for Haiti, there has been disappointment in the lack of progress in addressing Haiti’s persistent challenges. Haiti’s enduring dysfunction is consistently blamed on three groups: the weak and corrupt Haitian government; meddling foreign powers; and NGOs that, whether clueless or cynical, are not meeting the real needs of the Haitian people. All three critiques are well earned. While all groups share blame for Haiti’s underdevelopment, the experience of AIM at least provides a counterexample. AIM was established through the work of CECI, a Canadian NGO, using funding from the Canadian government and acting under the directive of the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture. Today AIM effectively mobilizes farmers to manage their water resources for irrigation.
Haiti’s first irrigation canals were built by slaves for French sugar cane plantations in the eighteenth century. In the century following Haiti’s declaration of independence in 1803, the canals were mostly unused. Then the Standard Fruit Company rebuilt the irrigation system for a banana plantation under the U.S. occupation of Haiti in the early twentieth century. Decades later, in the 1950s, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations came and expanded the irrigation system mainly for the benefit of rice farmers: as a result, the Artibonite valley has come to be called Haiti’s “rice basket.”
Under the Duvalier father-and-son dictatorships that ran from 1957 to 1986, rice production in the Artibonite valley, including Desarmes, flourished. But this came at a steep human cost: state officials managed farmers with an iron fist. Under the threat of violence, farmers with irrigated land paid water fees religiously and were required to work on the canals every Saturday, repairing walls and cleaning out sediment. With the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, the state’s grip on farmers loosened. Taxes were collected sporadically, and Saturday work parties became rare. As the farmers breathed free for the first time in decades, the canals fell into disrepair. But rainfall was so regular and plentiful during this time that even a poorly functioning irrigation network met the needs of most planters. And the weak central government, while responsible for the canals, felt no urgency to manage the system or make repairs. This situation lasted for about 20 years.
In the early 2000s, climate change began to have a noticeable effect on rainfall in Haiti. Around the country, farmers complained of crop failure, made all the more tragic by the fact that in many places, like Desarmes, an irrigation infrastructure had existed that could help avert the disaster, but it was now dilapidated due to neglect. The Haitian government recognized its own weakness at a crucial moment and chose to hand over control of the irrigation network. At the same time, the Canadian government was ready to jump on this rare opportunity to help Haitian farmers be less dependent on an ineffectual state.
CECI won a large Canadian grant in 2006 to rehabilitate key sections of the canal system and establish a local management structure. The system was fed by the Maury River, and hence the new organization was called the Association of Irrigators of Maury. CECI began the project with an awareness-raising campaign and grouped the one thousand farmers with land watered by the canal into eleven sectors.
The first and biggest hurdle on the path to community management was educating farmers to understand that the canal now belonged to them. While they had been using, cleaning and repairing the canals for decades with almost no assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture, they still considered the system to be the property of the state. Now the farmers were liberated to invest real time and energy into the canals, rather than just patching them up to make it through one more rainy season, as had been the practice for many years. Now, trained in local democratic deliberation, the planters elected sectoral committees from which members formed a central committee. Higher-ranking sectoral committee members, like the president and treasurer, were not eligible to be delegates to the central committee because they had to focus on their responsibilities to the sector. The central committee set fees, established priorities for maintenance and repairs and sought assistance for upgrades.
Compared to the pre-2006 period, canal management has been remarkably effective under AIM. Even the collection of water fees, long neglected, was respected by the farmers for several years. But AIM’s tenure has not been without challenges. In 2013, because of a drought and the fact that some parts of the canal system were receiving no water whatsoever, AIM suspended fee collection. Still, committee members continue to invest their own money to make necessary repairs in the hopes that the rains will come back.
MCC Haiti is currently carrying out a canal rehabilitation project with AIM worth over half a million dollars. What is striking is how well this project is going, while many smaller projects, carried out by ostensibly more “sophisticated” Haitian NGOs in Port-au-Prince, were more problematic, over budget and behind schedule. As the AIM executive committee explains: “these canals mean everything to us. It’s what puts food on our tables and sends our kids to school. Of course we’re going to work as hard as we can to make sure any projects to improve the canals are a total success.”
Kurt Hildebrand is MCC representative for Haiti, based in Port-au-Prince.
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Dubois, Laurent. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Picador, 2012.
Why Foreign Aid to Haiti Failed. Washington, DC: National Academy of Public Administration, 2006. Available at http://www.napawash.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/06-04.pdf