First trip to the Haitian/Dominican Border

I have had a wonderful and challenging learning curve since I first started working with Plant With Purpose almost five years ago. While I had traveled extensively and lived overseas, most things related to community development and sustainable agriculture were very new to me. Thankfully, I was able to visit Plant With Purpose’s program in the Dominican Republic almost immediately to get a better sense of what our work is about. We visited the border that Haiti and the Dominican Republic share and I began to understand a little bit more some of the challenges faced by farmers working hard to make a living on the denuded hillsides.

Because I didn’t know much about hillside farming, I’m sure that I missed most of it. I thought I’d share this reflection on our visit to the Haiti/ Dominican Republic border that I wrote after that first trip:

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On the way to market, Savane Real

The village of Savane Real sits perched high on a limestone ridge astride the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Not so long ago this rugged terrain was uninhabited, but in recent years population pressures on both sides of the border have led farmers further and further into the mountains in the quest to feed their families. Savane Real is one such recent settlement. Now it is home to 500 or so Dominican farmers and a more or less equal number of Haitian who work in their rocky fields.

We are here to meet with a group of farmers of both nationalities, who have bridged the gulfs of race and nationality to work to better their community. In the last year Plant With Purpose, an international Christian charity, has been working with farmers to improve crop yields and diversity the local economy through small business loans. Led by a highly skilled Haitian-Dominican staff, the team models the kind of healed relationships they hope to see in the community.

Though the fate of the two people is bound together, proximity has not led to peace. Tensions between the two groups are a part of life here, as people compete for scarce resources, over-farming hillsides and inadvertently destroying the fertility of the land. (The consequences of these practices were made grimly evident four years ago when rains triggered massive mudslides on the denuded slopes, killing 4,000 people as they slept in the valleys below; Haitians and Dominicans died in equal numbers.

Over the past year there have been significant improvements in people lives and the two communities are gradually coming together; there is a lot to celebrate in Savane Real. But tonight, as we sit around the table in Plant With Purpose’s rustic office, the atmosphere is dark/tense/subdued; the 11 year-old son of one the village’s Dominican farmers, Pingo, is missing.

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Hillside farm near the border

We were told that he had been abducted by one of his father’s farm workers, a 26-year-old Haitian man who lived in the village. The man’s family had then disappeared, leading the Dominican villagers to fear that something bad had happened to the boy. As a way to pressure the Haitian community to share information about his whereabouts, a group of Haitians was being held hostage.

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Haitian farming family on the border

We listened in silence as the local Plant With Purpose staff conveyed the situation. After a little while the boy’s grandfather, a local pastor named Jirico, entered the office and gave us a muted greeting before disappearing back into the night. After he had left we bowed our heads and prayed together- Dominicans, Haitians and Americans- that the boy would be found alive and that God’s peace would somehow come over the community. Outside the open door we could hear the boy’s grandmother wailing a grief-stricken prayer, “Dios Mio, Dios Mio!” over and over again.

There was no resolution to the situation that evening and in the morning we began our tour of the areas farms. While it felt strange to go back to plants while Pigo’s son was still missing, there two were not as disconnected as they might seem. By working in cooperation with farmers on both sides of the border, the team was seeking to heal the root cause of poverty and need that lead to violence in so many places like Savane Real.

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For the rest of the day our hosts showed us the difference their work was making as we toured their farms. Rather than just planting a single cash crop, their fields featured a rich diversity of trees and crops, planted together- avocado, coffee, orange, bananas and beans. Our walk took us across the Haitian border and then back and everywhere we went we saw the evidence of prosperity and hope.

Often we hear the word hopeless used to describe places such as Savane Real. Here was proof of a different possibility. With appropriate coaching and resources are radically improving their children’s prospects. Rather than creating dependency on outside help, such interventions give poor people the opportunity to achieve independence by developing their own God-given gifts and talents.

As our weary legs carried us back into the village of Savane Real we were confronted again with the immediate crisis of the boy’s disappearance. Many people milled around the center of town, while others searched nearby fields for any sign of his fate. While the police had stepped in and secured the release of the Haitian hostages, there was still no word as to what had happened. Near the Plant With Purpose office we met Pastor Jirico, the town’s sole pastor. He was not hopeful that his grandson would be found alive. Yet he told us, “Whatever happens there must not be revenge, for God tells us to love our enemies.”

As we drove away down the steep hillside, we got word that the Haitian man’s mother had been found in a village several miles away and that she had been pressured to reveal the location of her son. He in turn revealed the location of the boy’s body. He had been killed in his father’s field with that tool that is the universal tool of the poor farmer’s livelihood- the machete.

The psalmist writes, “The poor look for justice but find none.” As we drove back down to the city I couldn’t help but wonder what justice and peace would look like for Pigo and his family. But despite my sadness I realized that the answer, and the hope for peace in the region of Savane Real, lay in the larger work we had been privileged to see, where Haitians and Dominicans were working together to feed their families and learning what it meant to live out the reality of peace and justice.

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