I’ve always quietly suspected that the Jews and the people of the Caribbean were linked in some deep, mysterious way – the long history of oppression at the hands of Europeans, the sometimes uncomfortable existence as a scattered diaspora with a spiritual connection to an ancestral homeland, and the unique blending of cultures that expresses itself in our food, customs and languages. “I am a Jew man, I am a pogrom man”, I read in the work of Aimé Césaire, the legendary Caribbean poet, when I was 20 years old and living in a Caribbean village, and it was enough for me to run with the idea. But it was only recently that I realised what the logical conclusion of this connection was: kibbutzim in Haiti.
Yes, kibbutzim. In Haiti. Yes, that Haiti.
Haiti is, for many, simply a collection of depressing statistics. A desperately poor nation just 90 minutes from Miami by plane, Haiti leads or comes close to leading the Western world in such miserable fields as illiteracy, malnourishment, extreme poverty and infant mortality. To make matters worse, Haiti has long been experiencing a creeping desertification of its once fertile plains, due to the fact that for many peasant farmers in desperate poverty, cutting down and burning their own trees for charcoal to sell is a last resort to keep the wolves from the door. The result of decades of burning woodland is a country rapidly becoming arid desert, even more reliant on expensive imported food than before, and even less able to feed its 10 million hungry mouths (70 percent of whom are under 30). As the population grows and usable farmland shrinks in a country with a resolutely rural tradition, a catastrophe of food security is looming.
The answer isn’t giving Haiti free food aid, which might fill a short term gap but would only drive down the price of locally-produced food, ultimately negatively impacting the livelihood of Haitian peasant farmers, and doubtless resulting in more trees being burned for charcoal in desperation. Setting up industrial farming operations would also be unlikely to work – there is a deep Haitian mistrust of large-scale farming due to a cultural memory of the brutal plantation system, and to this day, most of the country’s farms are only a few acres in size.
What’s needed is a revolution in small-scale farming, and a revolution that can make use of land that has been turned to barren desert. That’s where the kibbutz model could be so powerful: firstly, although the early kibbutzniks didn’t face identical challenges to modern Haiti, they certainly developed means of ‘making the desert bloom’, and doing so on a shoestring budget. Modern Israeli agrotechnology has found ways of making a densely populated country (like Haiti) with severe challenges in water supply and availability of arable land (like Haiti) into a nation that produces most of its own food and also manages to be a significant exporter.
Secondly, and just as relevant, the notion of a kibbutz would not sit uncomfortably within Haitian culture. The country’s traditional motto, “L’Union Fait la Force”, ‘Unity Makes Strength’, could equally have been a rallying cry of the kibbutz movement, and the Haitian blend of anti-authoritarianism and collectivist spirit wouldn’t be entirely unfamiliar to your average sabra. What’s more, there is a pre-existing traditional notion within Haitian society of the konbit – an agricultural collective that plans, harvests and sells crops together as a single community unit. With some Israeli know-how, the konbit could meet the kibbutz, and the idea of using inexpensive technology and working as a collective to bring forth fruit from the desert could be exported to rural Haiti.
Now, before we get too carried away, it should be pointed out that the idea is not without some rather chunky problems: Haitians neither want nor need more well-intentioned meddling from abroad loaded with assumptions that it brings the answers to their problems without listening to them. Equally, Israel probably doesn’t need any negative press alleging that they’re building settlements in the West Indies. The combination of Israel and Haiti is not, however, a totally ridiculous pairing – following the devastating earthquake of 2010, the first field hospital in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince was set up by the IDF Medical Corps, a fact that Haitians have not forgotten. Equally, the brilliant work quietly done in Haiti by Jewish charities such as the JDC (without the attempts to ‘save souls’ that so often accompany charity work in that country) means that Haiti is one of the few corners of the globe where Israeli involvement might be met with a relatively warm welcome.
If there were a genuine Haitian desire to experiment with kibbutz-style agricultural techniques, and an Israeli will to accompany them towards self-sufficiency, a future where Israeli drip irrigation is used to grow crops on a 100% Haitian moshav outside Port-au-Prince is not an impossible dream. The technology is there. The need is there. Remind me – why aren’t we doing this already?