One of the central explorations of my dissertation research is how plants and animals do political work in rural Haiti. Stories of failure, killing, and expropriation brought my attention to the political life of Haiti’s agrarian ecosystems, but not in the way that I had expected. The replication of the kinds of stories — of suffering, violence, and insecurity — that so often focus public attention on this tiny crescent of mountainous land troubled me, and clashed with what I know of rural Haiti’s anti-colonial agrarian history. Although most Northerners know little of what Haiti’s peasants grow, they know that their fields are pitifully small, the soil degraded, and the crops prone to failure when buffeted by the latest hurricane or gummed with mud sliding down the treeless mountainsides. While ‘we’ in the global North hear of Haitians’ hunger, their poverty, and their dogged survival within a massively unequal global political economy, this litany of lack offers little towards understanding how rural Haitians — long termed the moun andeyo or ‘people outside’ — have nonetheless made and unmade political worlds on local and global scales.
In this space, I’ll be writing a series of explorations of the kind of politics that emerges from ecological relationships in rural Haiti. I’m currently preparing for a year’s fieldwork at the farm school of Haiti’s largest and oldest peasants’ movement — the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP, or Peasants’ Movement of Papaye) — on the central plateau. Despite Haiti’s long tradition of rural civic organization and MPP’s mobilization of more than 50,000 members, the world of Haiti’s peasantry is a persistent site of silence. I make an effort to look at rural Haiti otherwise — not only because of the rich agrarian history of the hemisphere’s first Black republic, but also because the silence of the peasantry suggests a broader lesson: that politics may emerge in unexpected places, and take unexpected forms.
Haiti’s persistently negative characterization obscures a sort of spectral political ecology that promises to illuminate how history, place, and politics emerge together in postcolonial agrarian landscapes. Rather than correcting absences, lacks, and silences, I’m ghost-hunting for the presence of the past, looking for the ecological specters that continue to haunt Haiti’s present. I’ll be writing a series of short pieces here, addressing how plants, animals, and people have made and unmade political worlds in rural Haiti. I’ve chosen six organisms in particular around which to focus my explorations: the creole pig, manioc plant, hummingbird, maize plant, palm tree, and cholera bacteria. My goal is to understand — materially and historically — how each might serve as a nexus for a particular set of political practices sustaining rural Haitians’ persistent claim that another world is possible: without slavery, without political repression, without hunger. What colonial, Revolutionary, and neoliberal ghosts haunt Haiti’s treeless mountainsides? We may be surprised to find them in the form of pigs or roots, bacteria or trees.
I’m wondering what you think of the deployment of the phrase ‘moun andeyo’, where you still see and hear it. the phrase struck me quite viscerally in Port-au-Prince last week, as well as the use of the phrase ‘pwovans’ (provinces). Not because I haven’t hear them used in Haiti before, but that I came to realize that I have never once heard them used in conversation in the rural place where I work in Haiti. I think the only time I did was when a Haitian in diaspora came to work here for a week and explained to me their thoughts on ‘moun andeyo’. Do you notice that the way rural people and communities are talked about in Papaye differ significantly as well? Do folks at MPP use different terminology to describe rural Haiti and Haitians? I have tried to be more specific, for instance calling people in Jacmel, Jakmelyen, rather than lumping all rural or regional Haitians into the same categorical label that continually re-centers the conception of space back to Port-au-Prince, or what I may now start thinking about as ‘moun andedan.’
Looking forward to read, comment and learn as this blog continues! Kenbe la!
Thanks for your question, Matt! Obviously “moun andeyo” is not a term I choose to use myself to describe rural people in general or the ones I work with, specifically. I hear agriculturalists around MPP refer to themselves as “peyizan” or “ti-peyizan,” which ID is an important concept for MPP and the Via Campesina network more broadly; that’s the term I use to describe the people I work with, adding their specific geographic location if needed.
I do hear MPP members and administrators use “moun andeyo” to describe how peasants are viewed by urban people or international development people, for example, or to describe their historical positioning. And I hear peasants describe where they live simply as “peyi-a,” while MPP members who visit from PAP often describe their trip as one to “pwovans.” I don’t have much experience talking to diasporic Haitians or those living in PAP about rural life, so I can’t speak to a comparative perspective. Problematizing spatial ideas of inside / outside is definitely something central to my work, so surely I’ll keep thinking on it.