Sheer numbers never convey the magnitude of a disaster because they leave out the human stories. News reports offer constant access to images and analysis, but the suffering can just seem too distant at times. And then there are those other times when it hits personally, all in one dreaded moment.
For me, that moment came when I got word that Flo McGarrell, a friend and fellow student of Haitian Creole had died in last year's earthquake when a hotel collapsed on him in Jacmel. As survivors began a weeklong search for Flo's body, everything about what was going on in Haiti felt painfully close to home -- even from half a world away (I was in Jerusalem at the time). Each story became Flo's story.
I celebrated with colleagues when missing Haitian partners appeared in cyberspace to let us know that they were still alive, even though their homes and offices had been reduced to rubble. Almost everyone had suffered a personal loss -- whether that be a parent, child, spouse, or dear friend.
As international reports praised foreign humanitarian workers as the "first responders," it was the Haitian people who were the quiet-but-determined heroes. And at Grassroots International, our partners were on the frontlines. In Port-au-Prince, PAPDA (the Haitian Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development) worked tirelessly to hold governments and aid organizations accountable even while they shared outdoor office space with POHDH (the Haitian Human Rights Platform), a group documenting human rights abuses across seas of refugee camps.
Revisioning, not just Rebuilding
Out in the countryside, the MPP (Peasants Movement of Papaye) welcomed refugees as they fled the city in search of food and shelter and engaged with them in agroecological work for food sovereignty. Haiti's two largest social movements, Tet Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Haitian Peasants Heads Together) and MPNKP (National Congress of the Papaye Peasant Movement) came together to insist that marginalized rural Haitians have a say in their development.
Many Haitians recognize that the painful process they are in right now isn't about reconstruction, but creating something that wasn't there in the first place. Long before the 35-second earthquake that put their misery on the map, they had been engaged in hard fought battles against corporate-driven megaprojects and crippling aid programs. In the last year, it has just gotten worse, with many of the same so-called solutions replicating those policies that made Haiti such a mess in the first place.
Threats from Outside Development
More often than not, the development agenda squeezes Haiti from abroad. Despite whatever good intentions may have been stated, it seems like everyone wants a piece of Haiti. Coca Cola's newly acquired Odwalla Company unveiled a plan to export mangos -- a staple in the Haitian diet -- for fruit smoothies, while the Seoul-based multi-billion dollar textile group Sae-A Trading Company is slated to exploit cheap labor through a new industrial park that will span 623 acres of Haitian farmland. U.S. agricultural giant Monsanto announced this year that they will be donating 475 tons of hybrid seeds onto the Haitian agricultural landscape -- a toxic "gift" that MPP's director Chavannes Jean Baptiste has called "a new earthquake."
Adding more misery to the already traumatized nation, the cholera epidemic has claimed more than 3,000 lives over the past few months, and health officials expect this number to continually spiral upwards. After more than a hundred years without a single case of the disease in Haiti, cholera is now a serious threat that changes the development landscape.
"Haitians living in the Artibonite Valley saw UN foreign troops dumping sewage into the river," said Ricot Jean Pierre from PAPDA, "and two days later the disease appeared."
MINUSTAH, the UN Stabilization Mission, quickly denied these claims -- which have since been verified through two epidemiological surveys. The first report, commissioned by the French government, notes that human waste was dumped in "huge quantities" into the tributary of Haiti's most important river.
Solidarity for Haiti
Around the world, grassroots movements and organizations have expressed their camaraderie with Haitians. "We want to express our solidarity and pay our respect to the people of Haiti -- the first ones in Latin America to rise up and fight for self-determination," said Jamal Juma', coordinator of Stop the Wall Campaign in the West Bank. "The dramatic earthquake that left the island in shatters has become yet another pretext for further colonization."
Now a full year after the catastrophe, Haitians remain dedicated to finding their voices in building the country they have fought for since their independence--one that is not a mango or textile factory or a new Caribbean marketplace for Monsanto.
"Peoples' right to self-determination is a fundamental principle of international law," wrote POHDH's director Antonal Mortime. "We have the right to make decisions that are not imposed on us by the U.S., France, and other countries. The world must give Haiti a chance to determine where it wants to go," he added. Mortime concluded with a vision for his country where Haitians would be able to take their destiny into their own hands and be the principle actors in the fight for economic and social change.
Soon after the earthquake, I returned from the Middle East. As I was unpacking, I found something that my friend Flo had left at my house one of the last times I saw him: a small bag full of local seeds. He was gone, but had left behind a piece of his hope for Haiti. His gift of seeds seemed appropriate as the land he so loved is starting to grow again.