MANICHE, HAITI — For more than 20 years, single mother Cedeniese Lexima has supported herself and her four children by buying produce from local farmers to sell in the southwestern town of Les Cayes. She is one of hundreds of Haitian women known as Madan Sara, who provide an essential link in the country’s food supply chain.
The Madan Sara, named after a migratory bird adept at foraging food, work together and rely on public transport to move local produce between communities.
“I am not part of any Madan Sara group or any state-owned organization,” Lexima explains. “We are the ‘left behinds,’ but we do our best to help each other out and always travel in groups, never on our own.” Lexima says the mayor’s office does not give them the same support, such as health insurance, that it affords to other workers.
Spending days away from her home in Maniche each week to travel to markets, hotels and restaurants to sell fresh goods, Lexima provides a vital service for farmers by collecting and selling their produce and enabling the urban community to access locally grown food. But this way of life is under threat as the country grapples with natural disasters, a fuel shortage and roadblocks, leaving many of these women unable to make a living.
And the farming community, which the Madan Sara rely on, is still struggling to restore production after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit on the morning of Aug. 14, 2021.
“Everyone around me started running and screaming, ‘Jezi sovem’ [‘Save us, Jesus’],” the 50-year-old widow recalls. “Everywhere was covered in white dust, and Maniche was left in ruins.”
The small mountainous commune of Maniche was one of the hardest hit by the earthquake, destroying nearly all homes, which had a devastating impact on the agricultural sector. Storms and flooding followed the 2021 earthquake, leaving many farmers forced to start again. With less produce available, it’s even more vital that the Madan Sara sell what they can access.
The most lucrative markets to sell produce are in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, which, from Maniche, requires traveling through Martissant, a neighborhood now plagued with roadblocks and gangs that demand payment to pass.
Those who attempt the journey soon discover it isn’t worth the risk.
“There were a few others with me on the truck the first time I took the risk of crossing Martissant,” says Didine Durand, a Madan Sara. “We were stopped by heavily armed bandits but were able to continue our route once the driver had paid them. I paid to avoid getting killed. I never took that risk again and only sell the products I purchase in Maniche at the market of Les Cayes. I make a smaller profit but at least it’s safe for me to get there,” she adds, referring to the southern seaport, an hour’s drive south of Maniche, where she has to sell her produce at a lower price.
With more than a third of the population facing acute hunger, food access is vital, and farmers rely on these women to transport their goods to market. The local economy in Maniche is driven by agriculture; small-scale farmers grow food for themselves and for market in their garden plots. The earthquake buried many farms and gardens, and damaged irrigation systems in Desrodieres and Dory, communes in Maniche with a large number of rice, potato and black bean farmers. They say they did not receive the assistance they needed to get back on their feet.
Jean Calèbre Rebecca, a Maniche farmer and the coordinator of Organisation pour la Promotion des Agriculteurs Généresse/Maniche, an advocacy group that works with around 400 farmers, says the farmers who lost their land and livestock in upland areas due to landslides did not receive enough help.
“We find it difficult to recover from the damage caused by such a disaster,” Rebecca says. “We have no support from the state, seed prices have gone up due to the fuel supply shortage and we have no access to financing services. We’ve been left hung out to dry.”
Maudeline Rozin bottles vegetable oil for resale at the market in Maniche. She left her life as a Madan Sara, something she had done from a young age, after roadblocks made her work no longer viable.
But Maniche Mayor Jean David Brunard says some farmers received seeds from the government to help them reestablish their farms.
“I don’t like hearing some farmers say that they receive no support from the state,” he says. “International organizations have to enter into a partnership with the mayor’s office before they can help our communities, which means we are providing an indirect form of support.”
Farmer Rose Marthe Desrivieres says the government distributed black bean seeds, but as this crop requires a lot of water to grow, only those farmers near a water source could make use of the seeds.
“The government distributed bean seeds in December, but the planting season is generally in November,” she adds. “Like other farmers, I had to sell some of my goods to buy seeds in November and sold the ones I received [from the government] in December.”
Pierre Thomas Raphael, a farmer who grows rice in smaller quantities than he did before the earthquake, says free seeds isn’t the answer.
“What we really need to get back on our feet is security, financing schemes for farmers and microloans for the Madan Sara,” Raphael says.
Maudeline Rozin stopped working as a Madan Sara, a way of life she was introduced to at a young age, after roadblocks made the job no longer viable. She now sells cooking oil in Maniche.
While some of these women seek alternative economic opportunities, and others settle for less income, continuing as a Madan Sara may not be an option for many.
“Our future will continue to be shaped by insecurity,” Durand says. “We still won’t be able to travel and sell our products at a reasonable price.”