Transforming a colonial legacy to bring hope

“And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. — Isaiah 2:4 (KJV)

A colonial legacy

High in the mountains above the Artibonite river, at the very crest of the Matheux range, sit the ruins of the colonial plantation of Lakwa, meaning ‘crucifix’ or ‘crucified’ in Haitian Creole. This plantation, with panoramic views of the ocean to the west, and the Artibonite river valley to the east, was both a huge slave coffee farm and a military outpost.

You can still see the rifle slits in the thick stone walls overlooking the approach from the valley below. The walls of most of the buildings are still standing, built thick with durable rock hauled up by hand from the river valley below, testament to the backbreaking labor of generations of slaves. The site has been abandoned for hundreds of years, seen as cursed land and a bitter memory by the local people in the surrounding communities.

The ruins of the plantation master’s house on the Lakwa plantation, where MCC is helping to reconstruct colonial-era structures to collect and store rainwater for local residents.

Memories of slavery, exploitation, racism and war hang heavy in Haiti. Within 150 years of Columbus’s arrival on Haiti’s northern shores in 1492, the island’s Indigenous population had been largely destroyed and the slave trade was booming. By its peak in the 1790s, the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) was importing more than 48,000 African slaves each year, most of whom would die within five years of landing.

These slaves built the colony of St-Domingue stone by stone, making it the most profitable colony in the New World, until they revolted, defeating French, British and Spanish forces, finally achieving independence in 1804. For Haitians, this brutal history is not just a story. It is a legacy remembered vividly and painfully in both words and the physical artifacts left over from that era.

Through partnership with MCC, this painful legacy of slavery and colonialism is now helping meet urgent needs for water and providing a symbol of dignity and solidarity.

A vulnerable community

Plantation colonialism was as destructive to the land as it was to the slaves who worked it. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the area around Lakwa was richly forested and highly productive. However, during the colonial era, the forests were chopped down to make way for the plantations that produced coffee for export. Since independence, over generations of declining profits from agriculture, a lack of government investment and frequent disasters, these communities have become both deforested, increasingly eroded and infertile.

Before the colonial era, the high mountains of Verrettes were richly forested. Today only a little over five percent of the land has tree cover. This has caused accelerating erosion, loss of soil fertility and the drying up of springs.

As the land lost its tree and plant cover, rains failed to penetrate the soil and springs ran dry. Without access to water, small holder farmers switched production from coffee, fruit and vegetables to less productive crops like corn, beans and sorghum. But soon, even these crops began to produce less as climate change brought longer droughts and harder rains.

As springs dried up, families walked further and further, an average of over four hours, to find water that wasn’t always clean. With no access to clean water or latrines, these communities have had some of the highest rates of cholera and waterborne disease found anywhere in Haiti.

Antrennet Remilous fell and broke her leg on the four hour walk she used to make to get water. Without good roads or easy access to medical care in the community she couldn't get treatment. 

Most communities around Lakwa don’t have adequate roads, electricity, health facilities, schools, latrines or water management infrastructure. Antrennet Remilous knows first-hand how perilous it can be to find potable water in these conditions. “A couple years ago, I was climbing back up a steep slope in a ravine where I had filled my bucket with water,” she says. “This was hours’ walk from my house. I slipped and fell and broke my leg. I did not get medical help because we did not have money and it was too far away. My leg healed wrong and I cannot walk well. I lost hope that I could ever provide for my family, even collect water for them.”

Building dignity from the ruins

Starting in 2016, following the devastating passage of Hurricane Matthew, MCC partnered with a coalition of local community groups and local government representatives to begin working in Lakwa and surrounding communities to bring relief. These projects also help begin the slow work of bending the arc of this difficult history toward justice. With our partner TSA/E (Table Sectorielle Agriculture/Environnement Verettes), MCC began a project to help these communities reclaim and transform the colonial ruins into sources of hope and symbols of new beginnings.

We have changed these ruins of slavery into things that give us dignity — Ocius Mèus

Two derelict colonial water cisterns on the abandoned Lakwa and Dibou plantations were cleaned out, rehabilitated and resealed. The old buildings, where the slave ancestors of this community used to work, were re-roofed, with those new roofs capturing clean rainwater and redirecting it to fill the rehabilitated cisterns. Each cistern can hold roughly 37,000 gallons of clean water, enough to supply around 130 families for a year. Given the area’s high rainfall, the cisterns are refilled about four times per year. The newly covered buildings also provide desperately needed expansion space for the area’s only primary school.

In Lakwa, old slave plantation buildings were rehabilitated and roofed to feed the community drinking water cistern.

“I did not even have hope that we could ever receive this kind of help,” said Remilous. “We had felt forgotten for so long. But now, thanks to God, I can find water, clean water, close to my home. I have been able to start a little vegetable garden that I can irrigate. I feel like I have life again, I have hope again. I can provide for my family again. I cannot tell you how thankful I am.”

Another community member, Ocius Mèus, who volunteered his time to haul rocks and sand for the rehabilitation work, said, “It feels like we are people again…we have food to eat, we have water to drink, we can bathe. There is dignity in that. We have changed these ruins of slavery into things that give us dignity.”

Ocius Mèus, a community member from Lakwa who volunteered his time to haul rocks and sand for the colonial cistern rehabilitation project.

MCC is now launching a follow-up project in these communities to rehabilitate an additional three colonial cisterns and begin the reforestation of the area planting 100,000 native pine and fruit trees. With these additional cisterns, the average walking time to find water in these communities will be under an hour, and the water will be both clean and protected.

A local community leader and activist, Paul-Andre Garçonnet, who volunteered his time for two months to drive supplies for the project along the treacherous 4x4 path to the community, said that it is important to be clear about what these projects represent to the communities:

“These projects are not an act of charity. They are an act of solidarity, between our communities and MCC, to begin changing our long colonial history. These communities have suffered, and their biggest priority has been water. Without water we cannot have animals, we cannot bathe, we cannot drink, we cannot grow vegetables, we cannot live. This act of solidarity represents hope for these communities. It represents change: changing something evil into something that gives life.”

Antrennet Remilous’s new vegetable garden in the ruins of the Lakwa plantation. This vegetable garden was made possible by the rehabilitated community cistern nearby that provides enough water to irrigate the gardens during dry periods.