[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
by Rusty Pritchard
Working hard to keep my balance, I followed a barefoot 60-year-old Haitian farmer up a mountain gully that sloped at angles exceeding 45 degrees. She moved like a ballerina, floating over the series of low rock walls that served as dams to impede floodwaters racing down the valley. I moved like a slightly tipsy, overly cautious elephant, struggling to find footing as I hauled myself upwards.
What we passed along the way were beautiful works of landscape art, like something from an Andy Goldsworthy project. At intervals of 15 to 30 feet were dry-stone walls of intricate construction, fitted together like jigsaw pieces from the irregular stones littering the valley, reaching across the gully as if they emerged from the valley walls themselves. But these dams were not designed to be aesthetic or artistic; they were designed to keep water and soil on the mountain, to slow the rainfall runoff, to create cultivable plots behind each wall, and to prevent the mountain soil from burying the city of Gonaives, 10 miles to the west.
Rebuilding at the ground level
In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne washed much of the topsoil from these hills into the city of Gonaives, leaving streets, houses, schools and businesses buried in sediment after the floodwaters receded, in what the Guardian newspaper called “a sticky, squelchy version of Pompeii.” In 2008, the topsoil gone, the subsoil of the hills was washed into the city by four more hurricanes. Tropical cyclones in each of those years found the worst possible spot to stall out, just off the northern coast of Haiti, pumping water from the warm ocean over to the Gonaives watershed, where many valley streams converge into the La Quinte River.
I just returned from a one-week trip to Haiti, where I had a whirlwind tour of soil conservation, clean water, and irrigation projects near Gonaives. What I saw were incredible efforts to restore the protective services of forested hillsides, sustaining and reviving the springs that provide drinking water and irrigation to thousands. Other projects capped those springs and fed clean water to public fountains in remote villages, and lined irrigation canals to increase the productive potential of gardens and cropland, enabling villagers to grow a more reliable and much wider diversity of crops.
Building these projects provided jobs to thousands of refugees who left earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince in the last few months, simultaneously providing income to affected families and pumping money into the local economy, supporting local enterprises, farmers, and families. The organization administering the work has a philosophy of “cash-for-work” in relief situations, rather than “food-for-work”. Cash-for-work cuts out a layer of bureaucracy, gives power and autonomy to households, lets the free market organize to its maximum extent, and lets hungry people choose a diversity of local crops, fruits, and vegetables. Food-for-work often ends up benefitting mainly first-world agribusinesses at the expense of local farmers.
How you helped
The biggest surprise as I observed these projects: the signs that said “USAID: Ed Pèp Ameriken” (Aid from the American People). I paid for these projects, and so did you, just by paying our taxes. American foreign aid was efficiently promoting free markets, creating jobs, building food security, and caring for creation in a country that has had far more than its share of sorrow, corruption, and waste. A tiny sliver of our economic product was making a huge and permanent difference in the lives of earthquake and flood victims, in a country that has just suffered losses that amounted to more than its entire annual economic product.
The Haitian people would like to thank you.
Rusty Pritchard is co-founder and president of Flourish.