Haitians moving to the countryside

Teenagers play a game of soccer using a plastic bottle next to a building that collapsed during the January earthquake on in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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Kai Ryssdal: Almost eight months after the earthquake that leveled most of Port-a-Prince, hundreds of thousands of Haitians are still homeless. They're living in tent cities or other makeshift housing in the slums of the city. Most of them are under 30 years old. They can't get jobs or education or better places to live. So economists are saying they should start looking for a future outside the city.

Ruxandra Guidi has more.


Ruxandra Guidi: This was once the main square of Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince. Today, it's a sprawling settlement of some 6,000 people who live under plastic tarps and sheets strewn between clotheslines and trees.

Adolphe Miradieux's makeshift home is on the edge of this tent city. He's 27, unemployed and he's had to abandon his college course in economics.

Adolphe Miradieux: Young Haitians are committed to going to school, to helping others and improving their own situation, but the government doesn't offer any hope to them. Here, there are many young people who can work but can't get a job.

Soon after the earthquake, Adolphe's mother moved to the countryside to live closer to her extended family, but Adolphe didn't follow. He says that there is often no electricity, drinkable water, clinics or schools in rural areas. For 50 years, the government has invested little in infrastructure, services or agricultural production there. So for Haitians wanting services and opportunity, the city is the place to be. Port-au-Prince was designed for 300,000 people. At last count, it had a population of three million.

But since the earthquake, more than 600,000 people have moved to the countryside, the government says. Many are looking for a simpler life, focused on food production and community.

Carlos Sinfinice is 17 years old. Days after earthquake, he and his family found themselves in a squalid refugee camp in Port-au-Prince. When they heard that the peasant enclave of Papaye in the Central Plateau region was welcoming and helping out families like theirs, they moved. The local peasant union gave them a small plot of land where they could grow vegetables, free meals and a simple home. Carlos says it's a different world from the city.

Carlos Sinfinice: The young people here have learned a lot. The peasant organization helps them to get basic services, sometimes even school and jobs. I've also noticed that the young people here help each other out more, and are generally responsible.

Agronomist Jean-Baptiste Chavannes has been calling for decentralization of Haiti's industry and services for more than three decades. He founded the nation's largest peasant cooperative, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay, to foster sustainable agriculture in Haiti. Chavannes says young people and peasants will have to have a big part in rebuilding the country.

Jean-Baptiste Chavannes: Right now, our plan is focused on building new homes, starting up new family farms, creating jobs and finding ways to integrate the refugees from the city into our communities. The earthquake isn't the first disaster to destroy Haiti; we've also had hurricanes and droughts, and need to think of this as an opportunity to come up with a long-term plan that benefits both people and the environment.

His approach is increasingly advocated by some international aid agencies and outside economists. They say concentrating industry and services in the cities makes Haiti vulnerable every time a natural disaster strikes these population centers. But to achieve decentralization, the government must invest more in rural areas to encourage people to move there from the cities, and to make sure they don't overwhelm the limited rural services once they do arrive.

Meanwhile, former urbanites like young Carlos Sinfinice are hedging their bets. Right now, he's spending his afternoons out in the fields, helping his father grow sugar cane and corn. But he goes to school in a nearby city, and if he achieves his goal of one day going to college to study journalism, that will not likely be in Papaye.

In Papaye, Haiti, I'm Ruxandra Guidi for Marketplace.

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