Haiti reimagined

UF News documented the lives of three Haitian students as they began a program designed to feed their country.

Lynhe Demesyeux spoke quietly as she reflected on life in Haiti and her hunger for ending food insecurity at home, where 50 percent of the population is malnourished.

But her words were heavy with hope.

"We have a lot to do," Demesyeux said from an empty classroom on the University of Florida campus. Haiti is largely an agrarian society; however, the farmers are aging and hunger remains one of its largest problems. Luckily, the grandchildren of farmers are returning to their roots, Demesyeux said.

 "It's not a modern agriculture in Haiti and young people are not always involved," she paused, "but more and more of us want to be."

Demesyeux is one of 20 Haitian students studying agriculture at UF and Louisiana State University this fall in a graduate program funded by Feed the Future, part of the United States Agency for International Development's global hunger and food security initiative. The program is called Feed the Future Haiti Appui à la Recherche et au Développement Agricole (AREA), also referred to as Support to Agriculture Research Development (SARD).

Fifteen of the students will study various aspects of agriculture this fall at UF's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Topics range from developing methods for modernizing Haiti’s agricultural infrastructure to controlling crop pests. Their graduate work is designed to modernize farms and strengthen agricultural research in Haiti.

Why are young Haitians like Demesyeux so eager to grow food that they'd leave their home country for two years? A country that can feed itself can lead itself, the students and program's organizers say. The hope is that the students will take what they learn at UF and LSU back home to improve agriculture, leading the way to greater independence and food security for Haiti. 

The students have each been shaped in one way or another by Haiti's agrarian culture, said Lemane Delva, AREA project research director. 

"This is where people work," Delva said about Haiti's farms. Delva originally came to UF from Haiti for graduate school before joining IFAS Global. Now he's helping facilitate the research of other young Haitians. “Agricultural research and Extension are very weak. So you have all of these people working in agriculture but knowledge of innovations lag behind.”

Demesyeux plans to start her own farm in addition to teaching and doing research — and that's exactly the idea. By gaining tools, knowledge and mentors at UF, she and the other students will help bring Haitian agriculture into the 21st century and train the next generation of agriculturalists.

The USAID recognized improving agricultural research and Extension in Haiti as an urgent need and chose UF due to its expertise and past work in Haiti. Food insecurity and hunger are epidemics in Haiti, exacerbated by a string of natural disasters: a quadfecta of hurricanes in 2008, a catastrophic seven magnitude earthquake in 2010, and longstanding drought — then tack on social unrest and poverty.

Demesyeux was studying agriculture at Earth University in Costa Rica when the earthquake hit. Days passed before she was able to contact her family and discovered her younger brother had survived being trapped in his school's rubble. 

It seemed like an eternity before Demesyeux got the first call from her mom. 

"All she said was, 'We’re OK,' then the call cut."

When she was growing up, Demesyeux's mom worked in a T-shirt factory in Port-au-Prince. Over recent history, farmers’ children have been pulled into the city for factory work and the promise of more reliable wages. But Demesyeux still spent chunks of her childhood on her grandfather’s farm loading bags of corn and peanuts onto a horse and guiding it from field to storage. Farming is her heritage, she says.

"I don’t know where I’ll spend my whole life, but I know wherever I am, I’ll contribute to the agriculture of my country," she said.

The connections between farming and natural disasters and climate change have shaped the students' lives and will shape some of their graduate projects, which involve advisers in both Florida and Haiti. 

In the southern part of Haiti, where several of the students are from, the mountainous island drops to sea level, making southern farms even more vulnerable to increasingly violent storms. Some of the students, like Demesyuex, are interested in plant breeding, and some even plan to develop varieties of 'hurricane season crops' that can be grown at times of the year when the coast is clear.

But despite Haiti's problems, the students interviewed by UF News expressed a deep loyalty to home. For some, it's their first time outside of Hispaniola. They leave behind parents, spouses and children for the two-year program, which will take some of them back to Haiti at times for collaborative research. Others, like Wilfred Calvin, expect to stay in Florida for most or all of the program, especially since traveling between the countries can be daunting.

"You have to give the U.S. government a good reason for going back. But I feel like I have a good reason," said Calvin, pulling out his phone to show a picture of his 2-year-old daughter. "She's always asking for me, always checking to see if I'm there. She wants my wife to say that daddy's coming. She wants to know I'll be home soon."

Calvin, whose graduate work involves finding solutions for agricultural pests, said his family is supportive, even though they're making sacrifices so he can attend UF. In Haiti, 100,000 children around Calvin's daughter's age suffer from malnutrition, according to the United Nations.

"It's for the future of the country, so it's for the future of the family," he said."I know what reasons I’m doing it, so I do it. I'm homesick, though."

The program's students are what Rose Koenig, interim IFAS Global director and coordinator of the AREA project, calls the "cream of the crop."

"The program provides an opportunity for Haitians to learn and then take their talent back to Haiti to provide long-term sustainable solutions that will solve the problems Haiti is facing," she said. “We're supporting that."

But the sacrifices are not without risk. There's no guarantee institutions in Haiti, like the Ministry of Agriculture and local universities, will have the funding needed to hire them and support their research. 

Floyid Nicolas wonders if his research interests will have support from the Haitian government. 

Nicolas is looking to water to nourish his country and provide a better future for his family. After losing his dad last year, he became the provider for his mom and three younger siblings. He's chosen irrigation as his focus at UF, as a key ingredient for growing more food in Haiti, he says, is modernized and innovative irrigation systems. 

He's interested in finding ways to grow food better in the mountainous parts of Haiti. Improving irrigation and water storage in the mountains would help farmers produce and store food and fight against erosion and flooding, Nicolas said.

As Calvin and Nicolas ate lunch together outside of UF Library West, they chatted about the Caribbean food they miss: plantains, corn, yams, cassava. It's not easy to find authentic Haitian food outside of Haiti, they said.

Calvin had an especially tough time adjusting to American food. He lost weight during his first few weeks in Gainesville.

"Well, you can go to Cuban restaurants and the food is very similar," Nicolas said.

Calvin replied, "What, do you remember the food last time? It was terrible." 

They laughed.

It's not that unique varieties of food aren't grown in Haiti, they said — it’s that not enough food is grown and stored. And what is grown is constantly under attack from pests and natural disasters. 

But these students' ambitions are not just to feed Haiti. Once they change agriculture, they believe social change will follow.

"We are young, we have energy, we have objective," Calvin said. "We can do it."

Words by Stephenie Livingston and photos by Lyon Duong