PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – For 37 years, the Haitian staff who operated from Mennonite Central Committee’s office in Desarmes have walked for miles every day, up mountains and through rivers in Haiti’s Artibonite Department, to work in remote and vulnerable communities.
The staff helped farmers establish tree nurseries, distributed thousands of seedlings every year and worked with residents to replant entire hillsides decimated by long-term deforestation. Water systems and hundreds of latrines have been built with staff support. They’ve responded to disasters and are providing environmental, hygiene and peacebuilding education through kids’ clubs.
In April, they started on a new road: The MCC-run project has become an independent Haitian-led organization, Konbit Peyizan pou Ranfòsman Kapasite Lokal (Agricultural Collective for the Reinforcement of Local Capacity, or Konbit Peyizan for short).
Konbit Peyizan will continue work MCC has been doing since 1982, organizing community groups and training smallholder farmers in sustainable agriculture and forestry techniques so they can increase the productivity of their land and provide for their families.
Since the beginning
“MCC has focused on the most vulnerable people in the most remote places,” said Jean-Remy Azor, previous program coordinator of MCC’s Desarmes office and now executive director of Konbit Peyizan. “Konbit Peyizan has the same mission. We want to go as far as possible to the places where people are the most disadvantaged.”
Azor, who has worked with MCC for 37 years, was born and raised in Desarmes. He started working for MCC in his early 20s, when MCC hired its first employees in the area. He oversaw MCC’s work in Desarmes as it expanded from reforestation into peacebuilding, education, public health and nutrition.
The difference these projects have made since 1982 is visible in the thickly forested hillsides and lush kitchen gardens in communities where MCC has been working. Since 2014, more than 2.3 million trees have been distributed. Rates of school attendance — an indicator of overall economic prosperity — have been steadily increasing.
The idea for the Desarmes program to become independent was floated more than two decades ago, following MCC’s development model that shifted from MCC staff providing services to accompaniment of local partner organizations. When work is carried on by local partners, it becomes more sustainable over time.
Projects designed and implemented by local leaders are more effective and appropriate to the community, said Rebecca Fast, MCC country representative in Haiti.
Members of the Desarmes team were initially hesitant to leave behind the security and sustainability of working for an international organization.
Over time, the team’s misgivings turned into confidence, especially after they took on several new projects after Hurricane Matthew, all of which were successful.
Because of hygiene and sanitation projects implemented by the team, the entire commune of Verrettes, the heart of the cholera epidemic, has been free of cholera for more than a year.
“We recognized that the MCC Desarmes team had the experience, capacity and drive to work as a local organization, Konbit Peyizan,” Fast said. “It has been our honor to walk with them through their path to independence and to work with them as partners and collaborators in the future. After 60 years of work in Haiti, MCC’s legacy lies in our partners.”
During the past three years, MCC has been preparing the team for independence. The new organization has created an advisory board and worked with an independent consultant to establish legal and financial regulations to create a strong and healthy new organization.
At the same time, the Konbit Peyizan team has been busy reassuring community members and project participants that the formation of the new organization doesn’t mean reforestation and agriculture work in the Desarmes area is coming to an end.
“On the contrary,” Azor tells those who are worried. “We’re simply taking on more responsibility.”
MCC will continue to work with Konbit Peyizan as a local partner organization, helping develop supporters and funders and helping build skills in areas such as finance, planning, monitoring evaluations, donor relations and communications.
In its first years of independence, the new organization will implement projects supported by MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.