October 16, 2012

On World Food Day, Haitian co-ops face struggles but persevere

Co-op members show their seedlings
A member of the "Hand in Hand" co-operative in the Artibonite region of Haiti shows seedlings. Co-op members pool their resources to grow food both for themselves and for sale in local markets. Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

By Chris Herlinger

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and New York – Today's World Food Day has special poignancy for a humanitarian agency committed to improving life in rural Haiti.

Though commemorated every October 16 to honor the founding of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization after World War II, the day has become a more expansive event about the need to alleviate hunger and ensure food security throughout the world.

This year's theme, "Agricultural Cooperatives – Key to Feeding the World," lifts up a particular area of concern and support by Church World Service.

Even before the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, CWS had supported food cooperatives in the Northwest and Artibonite regions of Haiti. Since then, CWS has expanded its support for the 13 cooperatives, particularly at time when Haiti's rural areas have been in flux.

A half million people fled the capital of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, but many have since left the rural areas. These fluctuations have put a strain on rural areas, and dreams of improving life in rural areas remain remote overall.

The idea of decentralizing so centralized country as Haiti "was just another great idea that has not taken root in the country," said Aaron Tate, CWS's Haiti earthquake response coordinator. "The people living in these areas are just as isolated as ever."

And indeed, life has proven difficult this past year, since the last World Food Day was commemorated in 2011. A drought has put additional strain on the co-operatives. "Sometimes I think our work there is really like disaster work, helping people survive and get by in the daily disasters of living in such a hard place," Tate said.

Yet the co-operatives remain strong by being well managed and governed, Tate added. The success of any cooperative, as the UN notes, is being "able to overcome difficulties by offering their members a variety of services. These services range from access to natural resources, information, communication, input and output markets, technologies and training.”

"We certainly agree with that," Tate said. "And so we have invested a lot of time, patience, and resources in helping make the co-ops stronger."

CWS's program – run in cooperation with the Haiti-based Christian Center for Integrated Development and funded by Food Resources Bank with support from CWS member denominations and others – has had a notable record of success in the last year, even in the face of real challenges. Among the milestones have been providing 40 percent more micro-credit in agricultural cooperatives, with 928 women receiving micro-credit to start small businesses. Also, 641 members received agricultural micro-credit and 1,099 people joined the co-ops as new members.

And in addition, two co-ops reached the milestone of having roughly $25,000, in capital to lend to its members.

At the "Hand in Hand" cooperative, life continues despite recent challenges, with members continuing to develop plots, pooling their resources to buy seeds and land, and growing crops for coop members and for sale.

And there are other things integral to the co-ops themselves. At "Hand in Hand," for example, some 50 women have received loans for micro-credit projects with the resulting profits used to help families with medical care and medicine – no small matter in a mountainous area where doctors and medical clinics are not easily accessed.

Senicia Sidoine, a co-op member who fled Port-au-Prince after the quake and the death of her husband, said the co-op has provided not only needed medical care and medicines but schooling for her children.

“The co-op,” she said, “is the only family we have.”