Chavannes founded the Papaye Peasant Movement ( MPP, Mouvement paysan Papaye, MPP) in 1973. Today he is 63 years old, and has not had a day off since then. Son of a farmer, he has chosen to devote his life to working with peasant farmers.
Chavannes, what is your background?
I come from a peasant family from central Häiti. When I was a child, there was no school in the rural community, and my father wanted to send his son to school. So I left home at the age of 5. I was placed in a foster home and had to walk 3 hours to school and home again in the evening. On Fridays I returned to my parents’ house. In secondary school, I lived with a different family. I then did a three-year course in agronomy. Afterwards, I worked with a Belgian priest; I was director of agricultural studies at a seminary.
Why did you choose to work in agriculture?
I had no choice. My parents couldn’t pay for my studies, and the Minister for agriculture gave study grants to those who wished to become agronomists. My father had eight children; three others have also become agronomists. For us it was the easiest solution. I don’t regret it, I have learned that peasants are not stupid, as many people think in this country; they have valuable ancestral knowledge. I have understood that the major problem for peasants is not a technical one, but one of mentality. Haïtan peasants believe that when crops are bad, it is because they have sinned, or because their neighbour has put a spell on them.
How did your commitment to improving the lives of peasant farmers begin?
I asked the Belgian priest to bring me books on group leadership. I learned a new approach: the teaching skills of the opressed. I began to lead discussion groups, and in 1973, I created the peasant movement Papaye together with a collective organization. We had a community plot where we taught people, who in this way learned new methods. The movement grew quickly to a regional, then national level. I also studied in order to better direct the movement; I studied cooperatives in Belgium, management in Italy, problems of development in the US, group dynamics in France, and economy in Costa Rica.
You are extremely involved in your work, what about your family life?
I have four children, with whom I made an agreement: what I had spent on their studies had to be repaid, to the peasants, when they began working. All the money I earned went to the movement, so I found this reasonable. My daughter is a doctor, and has spent three years working with the movement, developing a community health programme. My three sons have also worked for the movement; one is an electrical engineer, one is in finance, and the third is a computer scientist. My wife prefers to remain in the background but she too is very involved. She has suffered because I am never at home and sometimes am gone for 2 or 3 months, when the movement is under threat for its political position.
Do you have any regrets, and what is your greatest source of fulfilment?
I regret the fact that despite our efforts, the situation in this country has not changed much; there is as yet no collective viewpoint. I wished for nationwide reforestation, we are instead heading towards desertification. We cut down 50 million trees a year, and plant no new ones. However, I am proud of the fact that peasants are no longer despised and that their way of life is considered dignified. I am happy to see that these days, women and young people participate in the movement. Before, women were beaten if they came to meetings; today, the Secretary General of the movement is a woman. Things have progressed.
Also read: Resonances Latin America N° 25 - June 2008