Organic Gardens Feeding People from Argentina to Haiti

Jane Regan and Marcela Valente

HAVANA TIMES, Oct 22 (IPS) — Neither hurricanes nor floods, nor the devastating January earthquake or Haiti’s chronic political instability managed to wipe out the organic gardening initiative underway in that country since 2005. The seed was planted in Argentina twenty years ago.

Some 13,000 Haitian families (90,000 people in all) currently work with 23 agronomists in the “ti jaden òganik” (Creole for “small organic garden”) project, growing their own food. The goal is to engage one million people in this form of production.

The aim of the program, which began in Argentina under the name Pro-Huerta and is known in French as Program d’Autoproduction d’Aliments Frais (“Self-Sufficient Fresh Vegetable Program”), is to promote organic gardens in both cities and rural areas

So when the Haitian capital and several smaller cities and towns were devastated by the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake, which killed more than 220,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless, some families had their own garden production to fall back on and cover some of their food needs, agronomist Emmanuel Fenelon, director of the program in Haiti, told IPS.

“Some families told us they were glad they didn’t have to stand in line all the time to suffer the humiliation of asking for food,” Fenelon said.

The initiative first emerged in Argentina in 1990, where it has since grown to 630,000 gardens and farms distributed in 3,500 urban and rural settings across the South American country. The model has also been replicated in other countries of the region, including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela.

“We interact in one form or another with places all over the region. There are all sorts of initiatives, which either replicate the model or take some elements from it, and there’s also an international course to provide training in other countries,” agronomist Roberto Cittadini, Pro-Huerta coordinator in Argentina, told IPS.

But “the Haitian experience has been particularly successful because a great deal has been achieved without considerable inputs or efforts,” Cittadini said.

According to Cittadini, with a 100-metre garden a family can grow enough food to cover its needs, but a space half that size is also good. And community or church plots can be used too.

All anybody needs to do to get started is take a short instruction course, which typically involves eight half-day classes, but varies according to local circumstances. “Although the target beneficiaries are vulnerable families, this is not a welfare-style program; it requires their active engagement,” Cittadini said.

A program coordinator works with a technical team in each province to inform the population about the program, distribute seeds, tools and handbooks, and monitor progress on the gardens with the help of volunteers who do follow-up work.

In 2003, Pro-Huerta was included in Argentina’s National Food Security Strategy. Despite being a large food producer, 18 percent of the Argentine population had basic unsatisfied needs in 2001, and today more than three percent of the country’s 40.5 million people are living in extreme poverty, according to official figures.

These organic gardens are also sprouting in schools, prisons, community soup kitchens and senior citizen groups.

Food is mostly grown for personal consumption, but trade networks have also emerged. “This is agroecological production: no chemicals are used, pest control is done naturally and the soil is allowed to recover through crop rotation,” Cittadini said.

In Haiti, where some 2.4 million of the country’s nine million people are considered “food insecure” and half the food consumed in the country is imported, these small gardens are making a difference, the program’s agronomists say.

“It’s impressive. Many women tell us that they no longer need to buy parsley or cabbage. I know we’re having an impact,” said Fenelon, the first agronomist to join the program, which is housed in the Haitian headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and is also backed by the governments of Spain and Canada.

In addition to working with women’s, youth, and peasant organizations, as well as churches, the program’s agronomists cooperate with the Agriculture and Functional Literacy Ministries, training colleagues, literacy teachers, promoters and volunteers.

Young adults who are just now learning to read and write in Creole — one of Haiti’s two official languages, but the only one spoken by all Haitians — receive a colorfully illustrated booklet showing a family planting their garden.

The booklet, based on a similar one from Argentina, uses drawings to show how to start the planting process in boxes, discarded tubs or old tires, how to rotate crops, how to make compost, and other gardening techniques.

Since its inception, Pro-Huerta has spread from Argentina throughout Latin America.

Pro-Huerta was brought to Haiti in 2005, after Argentina sent military and police forces to take part in the United Nations Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH).

Today the program operates in six of Haiti’s ten departments or provinces: Artibonite, Centre, Northeast, North, West and South, and is expected to be launched soon in the Northwest department, with the support of the governments of Colombia and Barbados. National authorities are hoping to reach one million people by 2013.

Towards meeting that goal, a delegation headed by Haiti’s agriculture minister, Joanas Gué, travelled to Argentina in late September and visited several organic farms and gardens that have made progress in local seed production, poultry raising and water management.

Pro-Huerta “is probably the most successful example of South-South cooperation,” Argentine foreign minister Héctor Timerman said.

Argentine engineers Francisco Zelaya and David Arias Paz continued their visits to Haiti, even after the January earthquake, staying in tents, and “they did an excellent job with Fenelon, making it possible for the program to thrive despite the odds,” Cittadini said.

“Lately we’ve been training families to produce their own seeds, good seeds,” Fenelon said. “This is an important step towards assuring food security and food sovereignty.”

Seeds are a flashpoint issue in Haiti. Following the earthquake, the agroindustrial giant Monsanto donated four million dollars worth of hybrid maize and vegetable seeds to the government, sparking outcries and protests, including the burning of mounds of seeds. As it turned out, the seeds were not really donated but offered to farmers for a fee.

Fenelon says his country has no use for hybrid seeds. “With programs like Pro-Huerta, we can help Haitian farmers improve their own seeds, their nutrition and their economic situation, all at the same time,” he concluded.

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