What do you know about modern Haiti? John Winings, the author of Mountain Majesty, Volumes 1 and 2, captivated us with his stories set on the island. John was the Executive Director of Haiti Fund, Inc. (HFI), an organization that supports the Comprehensive Development Project (CODEP), a rural sustainable development effort detailed in the books.
We interviewed John to find out what he, CODEP and Haiti have been up to. Here is an excerpt.
Question: How is Haiti, and the region where you were, doing today?
John Winings: Out in the area where we were, where there is reforestation going on, the people’s lives are much better because they don’t have flooding and they can grow gardens. There are reestablished soils. When a hurricane comes or there’s heavy rainfall, most of the water stays up in the mountains because we have trees all over the mountainsides. So Léogâne, as the city that’s downstream of where we are located, no longer floods out when there’s a hurricane.
The lives of the people, either directly or indirectly involved, have significantly improved over the course of the last 25 years and specifically over the last 10 years, even through the earthquake, which caused a lot of trouble. Interestingly enough, in Port-au-Prince the earthquake had far more offices collapse. In Léogâne, almost all the things that collapsed were homes and houses. The percentage of the population that was homeless following the earthquake in Léogâne was much higher.
The situation is that Haiti always has difficulty with political situations. They’ve just been through a long process – two years – between when their president, who has a five-year term, left office and when a new president came into office. And so, we’re six months or so into his new term and so there’s lots of what I will call political adjusting going on as the country tries to sort of figure out what the new paradigm is going to be under the new president.
Question: What has CODEP been doing lately? What have they been focusing on?
John Winings: They continue to work with the 41 new communities in CODEP 2 who are planting trees. They continue to work with them to germinate and to harvest seeds from the existing forest that CODEP 1 already has. And then to germinate those seeds and grow them into seedlings and to dig the ditches and plant the trees twice a year during the planting season, which is at the beginning and at the end of the rainy season, which lasts roughly from the middle of April to the first of December.
They have a product depot which exists as a way to provide additional revenue for CODEP 1 participating communities who want to have a place to sell some of their produce, trees, etc.
The idea is that they will bring in products and figure out how to package them and price them and fix them up and sell them. One of the things that is new with this CODEP brand process is that we have enough trees in the ground, 14 to 15 million trees, and the forests are getting old. Some of them are 25 years old and need to be managed. And you manage them by selectively cutting trees so that the whole forest improves in terms of its health and longevity.
We have a new sawmill and so we are now harvesting a few trees and bringing them to the sawmill and sawing them up into lumber to sell in the market.
That’s a huge step forward compared to what they’ve traditionally done.
Question: Thinking back on the experiences that you’ve had with CODEP and in Haiti, is there anything you think that you’d do differently?
John Winings: I started in May 2005, so I’ve been at this for 12 years plus. When Americans first go to Haiti, they fall in love with it. They want to go back and they want to help the people.
They don’t understand that the people like to have them come, and like to have them give money, but the Haitians want to be self-sufficient. They don’t want to have the Americans, for example, come in and build a school, or paint the school. Sometimes two or three times in a summer because people come on a mission trip and feel good about themselves and go back home. What I would do differently if I could repeat the process is that I’d work hard to learn that lesson much quicker.
My sense is it is probably very common for people in the world who work in lesser developed countries. I mean, Americans are known all over the world as problem solvers. And so, Americans will come in to a place like Haiti after, say the earthquake, or after a hurricane. With not very much data, they will quickly analyze the problem, figure out an elegant solution to the problem and then do the work that is necessary to solve the problem. Then they’ll go away. Let’s say it’s a well or a little process that does biofuels. Then they go away and they come back a year later and find that the Haitians aren’t using the well any longer or the biofuel thing never really operated properly.
They seem to think that the American solution is something that will just be adopted by the Haitians. Whereas in Haiti it’s much, much more important for them to understand the social framework and to talk to each other and discuss it at length, give everybody a chance to talk about it. The solution that they come up with isn’t necessarily at all what the Americans would under the same sets of circumstances.
So, these cultural differences are pretty distinct. When Americans learn to understand that it’s best to do it within the context of the Haitian culture, things will work a lot better. Having said that, what we’ve discovered in CODEP is that while the Americans maybe moved 80% of the way or more to do things from within the Haitian cultural context, the Haitians have also moved toward doing it in the American style, but not so much.
The Americans have become more patient. The Haitians have become less patient, but the system works. I’m convinced that as people try to do sustainable development around the world they need to understand that this whole notion of doing it your own way simply doesn’t work. And doing it all the way to the culture that you’re working in probably doesn’t work either. There’s give and take and it moves mostly toward the culture of the place where you’re doing the sustainable development.
Interviewer: Thank you so much for speaking with me today.