By DEBORAH SONTAG
FOND-DES-BLANCS, Haiti — Before the earthquake that changed everything, Chlotilde Pelteau and her husband lived a supremely urban existence. A cosmetics vendor and a mechanic, they both enjoyed a steady clientele and a hectic daily routine, serenaded by the beeping cars and general hubbub of Port-au-Prince.
Now, as roosters crow and goats bleat, Ms. Pelteau, 29, toils by day on a craggy hillside in the isolated hamlet of Nan Roc (In the Rocks), which she had abandoned at 14 for a life of greater opportunity. At night, she, her husband and their two children sleep cheek-to-jowl with a dozen relatives in the small mud house where she grew up.
“With everything destroyed, what could I do but come back?” said Ms. Pelteau, wearing a floral skirt as she poked corn seeds deep into arid soil unlikely to yield enough food to sustain her rail-thin parents, much less those who fled the shattered capital city to rejoin them.
Life has come full circle for many Haitians who originally migrated to escape the grinding poverty of the countryside. Since the early 1980s, rural Haitians have moved at a steady clip to Port-au-Prince in search of schools, jobs and government services. After the earthquake, more than 600,000 returned to the countryside, according to the government, putting a serious strain on desperately poor communities that have received little emergency assistance.
“There has been a mass exodus to places like Fond-des-Blancs,” said Briel Leveillé , a former mayor and founder of the leading peasant cooperative in this region, which includes Nan Roc. “But the misery of the countryside is compounding the effects of the disaster. I’ve heard people say it would be better to risk another earthquake in Port-au-Prince than to stay in this rural poverty without any help from the government.”
Indeed, some have already returned to the capital seeking the international aid that is concentrated there. But if the reverse flow continues, it could undermine a primary goal of the Haitian government and the international community: to use the earthquake as a catalyst to decentralize Haiti and resuscitate its agricultural economy, said Nancy Dorsinville, a special adviser to former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to Haiti.
“If we really mean what we say about decentralization, then we have to think fast about a more robust distribution of food to the countryside, cash-to-work programs there, and assistance to agriculture,” Ms. Dorsinville said.
Decentralization has long been championed by many advocates for Haiti because the countryside endured decades of neglect while the Port-au-Prince area gained dysfunctional congestion. Now, with the capital city battered, it has become a policy buzzword, even as food is growing ever scarcer in the countryside.
“It is only a matter of time before we start seeing severe malnutrition in Fond-des-Blancs,” said Conor Shapiro, director of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, which runs a 60-bed hospital and community development organization here.
So far, there has been nothing less than a welcome mat provided for the returnees, who are family. Jacqueline Jerome, Ms. Pelteau’s wizened mother, who does not know her age, said, shrugging: “They don’t have anything now, so it’s up to me to take care of them. Like if God gives you a good harvest, you share with those who were not so blessed.”
Fond-des-Blancs is a remote, mountainous area 75 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, accessible only by a rocky road impassable by vehicle after heavy rains. Community leaders say the population, counted at 45,000 by a government census in 2001, has swelled by at least a third since the quake.
The growth is hard to measure, but the community leaders point to a few indicators. Some 300 needy families surveyed reported taking in an average of five earthquake victims each. St. Francois Xavier, a secondary school, has seen its student body increase by half with 150 displaced teenagers. And an additional 500 to 600 earthquake refugees are seeking to resume their studies although Fond-des-Blancs has only two government schools (and neither goes beyond the ninth grade).
The post-quake transformation of Fond-des-Blancs is palpable. At St. Boniface Hospital, earthquake survivors with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries fill the wards, while their relatives live in the courtyard. The hospital, which did not even have an X-ray machine until one was donated after the quake, volunteered to take the patients from the American naval hospital ship the Comfort, which pulled up anchor last Tuesday.
In the center of town, the influx from Port-au-Prince has created a night life where none existed before. The sole lamppost draws an evening crowd, and earthquake refugees jokingly call the dusty gathering place the Champ de Mars after the bustling plaza in the Haitian capital.
Near that lamppost, Ronange Buissereth has set up a small fresh-air restaurant, trying to mimic the busy one she lost in Port-au-Prince to the earthquake. But, she said, sighing, her relatively small hometown cannot produce a very steady clientele for her fried bananas, potatoes and pork, so her labor is really just a way to pass the time.
Several dozen members of Ms. Buissereth’s extended family have returned to a scrubby plot of land that her generation abandoned decades ago. Some, like her sister Rosemen Buissereth, 37, are happy to be back, if anxious about making ends meet.
“It’s like you become a Communist here because you never touch money,” she said. “But it’s not so bad. Even though I left 25 years ago, Fond-des-Blancs is still the place that I call home.”
Her cousin Monique Alexandre, 45, is already laying down new roots. Last weekend, with rainbow-colored rollers in her hair and pigs rooting through the dirt at her feet, she oversaw the laying of a foundation for a new house — “with a tin roof that cannot crush us!” she said.
“If I somehow scratch together some money, I’ll go back to Port-au-Prince and rebuild my business,” a food store, she said. “If not, I’ll stay here and work the land. You have to adapt.”
Missoule Alexandre Pierre, 54, was not so sanguine. As her listless daughters leafed through magazines and stared at their nails, she expressed considerable frustration that her children’s education had been interrupted.
“These three girls were all university students, and now their future is uncertain,” she said. “They don’t know what to do with themselves here. Every morning they wake up and say, “Mama, take us back. We’d rather sleep on the street.’ ”
Fond-des-Blancs has a long history of migration, with residents fleeing to Cuba, New York and French Guiana even in the best of times.
“Until 1963, it was beautiful country with all kinds of birds, plentiful rainfall, big old trees and coffee plantations,” said Mr. Leveillé , 62. “But that year, Hurricane Flora devastated our environment in a day. International companies like Dupont began replacing sisal, which we grow, with synthetic fibers. And people started cutting down trees to make charcoal.”
By 1982, Fond-des-Blancs, deforested, was at its nadir and the exodus to Port-au-Prince was under way. At the same time, help began arriving: a relatively successful reforestation program and a health clinic started by a Catholic parish in Quincy, Mass., which became St. Boniface Hospital.
Projects like the crossbreeding of scrawny local goats with large Dominican studs breathed some life into the economy (with Fond-des-Blancs aspiring to be known as the goat capital of Haiti), but the area still struggles.
Worried about the impact of the returnees, local leaders have decided to unite their myriad community groups to figure out how to absorb the newcomers while using the earthquake to draw attention to the plight of rural areas. At a recent New England-style town meeting, they summed up their resources succinctly on a blackboard: “Public health: nonexistent; electricity: nonexistent; water: insufficient.”
The former mayor, Mr. Leveillé, his face weathered under a straw hat, told the crowd, “It is time to force the international community and our own government to focus on us, too.” And heads nodded.
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