Interview by Beverly Bell, Other Worlds
Jose Luis Patrola is a history professor, farmer, and member of the Brazilian land reform group, the Rural Landless Workers' Movement, or MST. He lived in Haiti for three years as part of the Dessalines Brigade, an exchange of agricultural and technical cooperation between Haitians and Brazilians. In a departure from many international programs of "teaching" and "aiding" Haitians, Patrola speaks here about mutual learning and respect.
We are here in Haiti in an educational solidarity exchange program. We're not here to teach. We're here to learn.
In our work, there's great respect for Haitian farmers and movements. That's something that has been greatly lacking: respect. Not only from foreigners, but from Haitian elites who don't acknowledge their own people.
The MST and the Via Campesina [a coalition of farmers and landless people's organizations from around the world] in Brazil have had contact with small farmers in Haiti for many years now. Since 2004, we'd been thinking about a solidarity exchange program between campesino movements in Brazil and Haiti. We were finally able to make this possible starting in January 2009, when the MST and other small farmers' organizations from Brazil sent a brigade of four people to identify what the solidarity exchange would look like. The exchange now works to achieve horizontal solidarity between these farmers.
With the earthquake in January , things changed a little, and movements in Haiti suggested to us the possibility of strengthening the brigade with more Brazilians. We organized a brigade
of 31 people, who sleep and eat in the Haitian farmers' homes.
There are different farmer movements from Brazil that are participating. The MST is the biggest group, but there's also the Movement of Small-scale Agriculturalists, the Movement of Women Campesinas, the Movement of Dam-Affected People, the Pastoral Commission of the Earth that's part of the Catholic Church, and a representative of the Movement of Unemployed Workers.
The brigade consists of people with different skills. We have farmers. We have technical agronomists that are also children of farmers. We have veterinarians, professors, construction specialists, and two medics. We're doing a little bit of everything; the diversity is very important. A doctor, for example, helped install a cistern for water catchment, and professors are also working the land.
The program works at two levels: an organizational level to strengthen peasant organization and autonomy, and a technical level with programs of cooperation, including agricultural production and training schools.
This exchange is organized in four fundamental components. First is the exchange, a big opportunity for cultural and intellectual training. We have 30 Brazilians here, which is like a training school in itself, because the starting point of their time here is learning.
And we sent Haitians to Brazil as a form of horizontal solidarity. The people spent one month in a school in Brazil where they had history, geography, and Portuguese classes. Then Haitians went to different parts of Brazil to get to know about the different things we're doing. We want Haitians to have the opportunity to understand what's happening in Brazil so when they come back home, they can contribute to their organizations.
The second phase of the work is producing seeds, which is fundamental to food sovereignty. We started strengthening the national production of seeds so people can save, maintain, and produce their own seeds. We're establishing six centers of seed production of legumes and other seeds like corn. We'd like to grow stronger in the area of legume production based on our experiences in Brazil, because in Haiti all the seeds for legumes come from other places; they aren't produced here. We don't just want to build a program to produce seeds, we want it to be controlled by the farmers.
Third, we started a program of reforestation. It's true that Haiti has serious issues with deforestation that's not easy to work on. A lot of trees are cut to make charcoal to assure the farmers a steady income. We've worked on reforestation by planting avocados and mangos, other things, so the farmers can [have other sources of income].
The fourth area is the construction of intermediate-level technical schools to train young farmers in agricultural technologies. Like in other sectors of society, the investigative and technical side of agriculture has been abandoned. Five or six technical schools have been closed. We have plans to open one. We have many examples in Brazil to work with; it's a dream of peasant movements.
[One piece of technical support] is water catchment. People here are dying of cholera. What's the solution? Potable water to live. We're installing 1,200 cisterns.
So these programs - the exchanges, the seeds, reforestation, and technical schools - have a fundamental objective: to help them strengthen their autonomy and their organizational capacity, the base of social movements. That's the principal philosophy of the cooperation.
All the work we've done has been voluntary. All the resources we've gotten are from a foundation in Boston called Grassroots International and from two Brazilians who've supported the brigade. There are movements back in Brazil that are assuming responsibility for supporting the families, providing monthly contributions, because some [Brazilians here] left children [back home]. There are also the volunteer hosts [for the Haitians] there in Brazil.
Social movements all over the world have forgotten the concept of internationalism. Small farmers' movements through Via Campesina have revitalized this, and the example of Haiti has proven it. The exchange proves that a solidarity exchange is possible between peoples, not just between governments. Not that that isn't important, but social organizations can also articulate their exchange programs of alliances.
What we are doing doesn't consist of donating things, it consists of identifying and constructing alongside Haitians. The Haitian people have to be respected and we have to get to know them, we have to speak their language. It's very symbolic, what we are doing.