Haiti, once lush with fruit trees and towering forests, was known as the pearl of the Caribbean. But today, after decades of colonization, violent political strife, and the wasting of its natural resources, the island nation's very existence is threatened. Ninety percent of its forests are lost; there are few trees remaining to prevent erosion and every storm carries away more of its topsoil.
Desperate to survive, poor Haitians continue cutting trees to make charcoal, a vital source of income, and the primary source of energy in the country, leaving it dangerously vulnerable to deadly mudslides and floods. In 2004 tropical storm Jeanne killed an estimated 3,000 people there.
Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, an agronomist by trade, has been fighting to reverse this downward spiral for over 30 years. "The rate of disappearance of forest cover in this country is so rapid that soon the place will turn into a dessert. There is less than two percent tree cover right now. If we don't treat this situation as an emergency, we won't be able to turn it around, and the country of Haiti will disappear," he said.
Despite Haiti's abject poverty -- this is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere: 53 percent are illiterate and most are subsistence farmers -- Chavannes has grown a movement 60,000-strong called MPP, the peasant movement of Papai.
Central to their work is food production, and teaching the principles of sustainable organic agriculture.
Chavannes says, ”The most important aspect of the work of MPP is education. It is our goal to change the peasants’ perspective so that they will realize that they are the masters of their own destiny."
Projects include a solar cell manufacturing plant, efforts to bring back the once nearly extinct Creole pig, and a bakery that sells goods made from MPP's crops. Farmers now use natural fertilizers and pesticides, water-saving irrigation systems, and simple erosion prevention techniques. Among its many accomplishments, the group’s members have planted 20 million trees.
Louise Bowditch directs ‘Seed Haiti.’ “Chavannes doesn't start with the tree. He starts with the person, and if you start with the people you're quickly going to get to trees, to food, to water. He works with people to identify why is it that our bellies are empty, that our soil is not giving what it needs to give, and it's that process that I think is really quite wonderful."
The grassroots leader has survived several assassination attempts, and at times exile, but Chavannes perseveres, teaching that protecting Haiti's sacred mountains and fertile topsoil is vital to its future.
One farmer and MPP member says, "Mr. Chavannes was born here. He is one of us. He has worked so hard for us and suffered for us. He has given us everything that we have, especially his knowledge. If we have a problem with each other, he helps us find a solution, so that we can stay together like a family, and with that unity, we know that we can succeed."
The MPP is increasing long-term crop yields, decreasing dependence on imported foods, improving water resources, and reducing malnutrition in children.
(award ceremony announcer)
"For outstanding environmental achievement for islands and island nations, the 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded to Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, Papai, Haiti"