It takes about 15 minutes to travel the two miles from the main road down to the fishing village situated on Lake Azuei. We bounce around in the truck like popcorn; I know people in the US who have earned hiking badges for less than this stretch. When we pull into the village, the villagers recognize Val's truck and swarm us. Naked children reach for our arms and generally everyone is smiling at the sight of Dr. Abe. Aid workers are generally the only white people who make it to these remote locations, and our Haitian driver and translator admit to not even knowing these villages existed. But here, Dr. Abe and his silver truck represent
A few years ago, Val identified seven fishing villages that would receive his tilapia fingerlings. All villages were once solely dependent on fishing, until overfishing emptied the lake leaving poor families poorer. No other economic activity takes place, and parents frequently don't have the means to send their children to school. The cycle of poverty continues. Those who can, generally get out and move to more urban areas of the country. In the shade, a group of men are sitting around chatting while a few others are building and mending large mesh cages.
|Fishermen mend nets and build cages. (Photo: Steve Midway)|
"These men don't need to go to Port-au-Prince," says Val. "Why? So they can be unemployed there? What we are trying to do is create jobs here so they can stay in these villages and work."
Several worn cages—all about 4 feet tall, wide, and deep—lie in the background ready to be cleaned up or re-purposed for parts. Several yards into the lake, rows of cages bob up and down, each one undoubtedly swarming inside with over 2000 tilapia. These villagers will feed the caged fish up to 3 times each day until they have reached about 1 pound. Then, Val will come back and buy the majority of the fish and return them to his hatchery where they will be processed and sold throughout Haiti. For their work, these villagers can make over $1,000 per year—still a relatively humble annual income to most, but a small fortune to those with nothing, not to mention the sense of pride the fishermen get from the hard work and means to send their kids to school and the doctor.
President Clinton, who has a unique and long history with Haiti, caught wind of Val's operation and nominated him as one of TIME magazine's Top 100 most influential people of 2010. No one argued. Getting anything done in Haiti can be a Herculean task, and Val's combination of starting and growing a fish production operation that then provides work and financial security to some of the world's poorest families is nothing short of unimaginable for most. Val is the first to admit that it isn't easy and hurdles exist everywhere. (And Val shakes his head and laughs when telling us that, despite the destitute conditions in these villages, one man was still able to father 16 children!)
|Rows of tilapia-filled cages line the shores of Lake Azuei fishing villages. (Photo: Steve Midway)|
Many of us get into fisheries science because in one way or another, we want to positively impact resource management—both the resource itself and the people that rely on it for employment, nutrition, or other needs. Seeing Dr. Abe and his operation is first and foremost a positive story about some good that is going on in Haiti—a country that desperately needs as many Vals as they can get. But it is also a fisheries success story and clear reassurance that fisheries project can positively impact those in need. In Haiti, fish are making a difference.
I ask Val, who is not Haitian, how long he plans to be in Haiti, and what is next. "I won't be in Haiti forever," Val tells me. "I don't know where I'll be next. Maybe Africa, maybe somewhere else. Once I get this operation to a point where it can run without me, then I will move on to the next project."
There is certainly no shortage of places that would benefit from a few years of Dr. Abe, and personally, I look forward to following up on Val's work wherever he is.
|Me with Dr. Valentine Abe. (Photo: Steve Midway)|
Acknowledgments and Additional Resources
This trip could not have been possible without the generosity of my friend Ethan Tate and the Building Goodness Foundation. Ethan, Mary, Daniel, Gerald, and all of BGF: Please continue your excellent work in Haiti. Dr. Abe's operation, Caribbean Harvest, can be found here. TIME's video coverage of Val's operation is here. And finally, if you are so inclined to make a contribution to help the fishermen of Haiti, click here.