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Onel is a Haitian Farmer currently spending the late summer, early fall growing season between Virginia Beach, Virginia, and New York City, New York, as an employee of the nonprofit Community Development International. After growing up in the Haitian countryside, Onel moved to Port-au-Prince to attend Universite d’Americaines des Sciences Modernes d’Haiti. He has since built an all-natural chemical-free tropical fruit tree nursery and education center. He teaches students, farmers, and community members how to grow low cost, highly productive, perennial food forests. He currently grows 5,000 fruit trees in the nursery that he actively gives to his community to help people create more food sovereignty. Onel is a grateful, humble, highly educated, quadrilingual (French, Creole, English, and Spanish) Haitian who is extremely privileged in relation to the majority of his fellow citizens.
The New Earth Farm, where I work, is one of the farms where Onel is apprenticing in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I took Onel out to see what I do for fun this past weekend. We went to the food share of the Norfolk, Virginia Chapter of Food Not Bombs (FNB). At FNB a large, organic, vegan feast is shared with underserved, undernourished, mentally handicapped, homeless, and otherwise hungry people. Onel had never been to one of these food shares, but was fascinated with the idea. We cooked organic food from the farm for those in need of nutrition in the food desert neighborhood where we serve in Norfolk, Virginia, at 19th and Omohundro near the arts district.
I knew Onel would have fun at Food Not Bombs after explaining to me the details of the wealth gap in Haiti at lunch one day. On top of a large juice bottle he demonstrated where the rich people of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, live. At the bottom of the bottle, his phone represented the poor, and a small box nearly the same size represented the middle class, in the rural countryside. “Haiti is the poorest country in the northern hemisphere” and “Two and a half million Haitians live in extreme poverty.”
Onel explained how the recent history of Haiti has been a whirlwind, politically. In 1990, the poor and the middle class came together to elect Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an unpopular figure among wealthy Haitians. After Jean-Bertrand won the presidency the wealthy came to a popular young Haitian named Guy Phillipe, who visited and campaigned with all of the universities and promised to bring money and prosperity to young people in exchange for their support. He was convinced by the wealthy to overthrow Jean-Bertrand. Jean-Bertrand was threatened by the “paramilitary leader Guy Philippe, a former Haitian police chief who was trained by US Special Forces in Ecuador in the early 1990s” and exiled to Central African Republic. The poor finally had a voice through Aristide, but then he was gone. When they needed him most, in 2010, a 7.0 magnitude Earthquake shattered any remaining hope for the under-privileged of Haiti, but Jean-Bertrand was powerless. His life was threatened and he could do nothing when disaster struck. Remember the “text to donate” Red Cross PR campaign? That money never made it to Haiti. It didn’t go to the Wealthy, it didn’t go to rebuild Haiti. It stayed in the United States, in the pockets of the Red Cross.
If you go to Haiti today, you see a nice capital city rebuilt by the wealthy class and some of the funds from the Red Cross. In the countryside, however, the socioeconomic contrast is like night and day. The serious epidemics of poverty and malnutrition continue. Dead bodies lie in the street. Deforested land stretches for miles.
With this recent history in mind, Onel could not understand how homeless and hungry people still exist in America. America is a rich country. Couldn’t the rich people take these poor and buy them a home or provide some place to live? And what about all the food in the grocery store dumpsters? Aren’t there more than enough wealthy people in the Unites States to take care of everyone?
Onel was right. Why do we have poor people in America? In the last century there haven’t been any civil wars, government coups, or massive natural disasters that crippled the entire country or economy. If more than enough resources exist to go around, why aren’t they going around? Why is the economic distribution in the United States nearly exactly the same as it is in Haiti? While the answers to these questions are obvious and not surprising, these rhetorical questions leave a dark space that is the shadow of our culture.
Onel asked valid questions. The United States gets portrayed as the promised land, even to this day, to the rest of the world. I explained that people here in the land of opportunity hold greed in their hearts, too. I explained that grocery stores prefer to throw perfectly edible food in a locked trash can than give it away to hungry mouths. I explained that the rich people would rather buy their next Mercedes-Benz or Yacht than concern themselves with the problems of the lower class’s health care. I explained that we still live in a country full of slaves, but we call them different names. We call them “the poor”. We call them “minorities”. We call them “under privileged”. We call them the victims of trauma and mental illness, when in fact these are merely symptoms of the illness we face as a whole that is consumer and throw away culture.
When I speak with Onel, we often exclaim our mutual despair for the challenges we face as humanitarians and community builders. This sadness propels us to make small changes in underserved people’s lives each day, as well as in our own lives. In permaculture the problem is often reframed as the opportunity for a solution, and both Onel and myself became and remain great friends for this reason. We actively seek ways to initiate these solutions in a world where problems exist in great numbers while the simple effective solutions exist, but get implemented by so few. We implement solutions within ourselves first before reaching out to help our community.
For Onel, the challenges he faces in Haiti include deforestation, caused from an overactive lumber industry which cut down the biodiverse rainforests of rural haiti in a drastic effort to make money; hunger; economic scarcity; and a corrupt political system. By educating youth about the importance of organic food production, teaching his community how to turn fruit seeds into fruit trees, and donating plants from his home grown nursery, he overgrows the forces of ecological and economic oppression, one tree at a time. Each time he teaches a child how to grow a fruit trees, he creates food and livelihood for his students. Each tree his students plant feeds hungry people, reforests the island, contributes to plant and animal biodiversity, sequesters carbon, offers a valuable education, and leaves a legacy.
For myself, the challenges I face in the Unites States include deforestation caused by phenomena called lawns and overgrazing; hunger; economic scarcity; and a corrupt political system. By working with local organic farms to access fresh, organic food, which I give to hungry people in the city, I overgrow many of these problems with organic, grassroots solutions, in the same way as Onel. By turning people’s lawns into organic gardens, I help to reforest one small plot at a time. By hosting a Really, Really Free market at the community peace garden, my friends and I help close the wealth gap, one winter coat and one empowering book at a time.
The inspiration in this story comes from the shared resiliency and solidarity that happens across borders, climates, language barriers, and cultural norms. Our two stories coalesced when we met and the convergence opened my mind to the possibilities of real, organic solutions relevant to each bioregion. Our solutions vary widely, but we face nearly identical challenges, and this story offers proof that no universal “cure” exists for world hunger or poverty. Organic solutions exist for every bioregion and the sooner we come together as a global community to enact these customized solutions, the closer we come to uprooting the oppression of our patriarchally dominated global mindset. Our use of permaculture principles, neither of us call it that when talking to each other, gives us hope and inspiration to change the world around us, and to actively empower those who need help in our communities.
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