Text: Eva Breukink
Photography: Studiorootz | Berber van Beek
Luberisse Celestin (1979) stands between his goats and sheep. Wearing galoshes, a handkerchief wrapped around his head, with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up, so his belly stays cool. The little lamb in his arms drinks greedily from the bottle of milk. His eight-year-old daughter Dialine watches attentively how her father tends the animals. His son Jean (16) works the property at the back. From a young age, Celestin learned the tricks of the trade from his family in Haiti – just like his children now. Just by watching, helping out. Parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts are all involved in market gardening of fruits and vegetables. Only after arriving in Curaçao did Luberisse Celestin let go of a future as a police officer.
In February 2001, at the age of 21, he visited Curaçao for the Tumba Festival. Luberisse loves the music, the rhythm, the vocals. It is his way to empty his mind. When friends tell him about the Tumba festival in Curaçao he wants to visit to experience the Tumba music live. Celestin has not left since. The tightly knit Haitian community becomes his new Curaçaoan family, they help him to get a job and a roof over his head. He rolls from one job into the next.
At Banda Ariba, Celestin and his wife Joselene seize their chance. In 2012 they built their own plantation here, entirely from scratch. It is hard work, and yet they wouldn’t want to do anything else, because this is what it’s all about. Without food everything stops, even the economy. Not everyone has that kind of consciousness. So, Celestin has to explain to his own children that a farmer’s work is not “dirty”, as they hear from others, but rather important and valuable.
“We wake up early, four or five o’clock in the morning, and go to sleep at about ten o’clock in the evening. At night I sometimes get out of bed to check on the animals. At the same time, I make sure that everything is in order with the cistern and on the fields. We work hard and do what we can in one day. If we can work six to eight hours, I’m satisfied. A farmer never produces only for himself, but for the entire population. We help each other and we share what we have, if possible. By joining forces, it is the only way we will move forward. Together.”
Only together can we move forward
“Life is a great blessing, I am aware of that. It is important that we take care of each other, because not everyone has the same opportunities. One is smarter than the other. One may have more setbacks than the other. But every person matters. A life without love, without connection to others, is a life not lived. We need each other. I try to be friendly and kind to everyone.”
“No, growing fruit and vegetables is not difficult. If you like it and do it with love, you’ll learn quickly. Yes, you really need to love this work. Just like a parent to their children, a farmer is responsible for the care of his plants and animals. I am satisfied with what I have. One day there is enough to buy a large loaf of bread, the next day only for a small slice. Luxury is not important. A person is beautiful, but not for the clothes they wear or the expensive things they have.”
Health starts with healthy food
“We should have more appreciation for what we grow on the island. Many people still associate working on the land with the slave labor of the past. They love to dance in a hòfi and love good food, but do not think about where those products come from. What do you look for when you go to the supermarket? Something to eat! Where does it come from? From the ground! We farmers, all over the world, take care of the food. That deserves a lot of respect. Food comes first.
Health starts with healthy food. A person must eat. Those who do not eat well cannot do anything, not even the men and women in suits in front of computer screens in an office. In Curaçao there is still a lot of land available to produce food, but everything revolves around money. It would be good if more attention were paid to the problems of farmers, to ensure that the population still has enough to eat in the future. That’s good for the whole country. You don’t achieve much on your own, but together you will. Together we can help to move the economy forward.”
Celestin estimates his plantation at about two hectares. In the year 2022, the land is cultivated with different kinds of vegetables and fruit trees. If you drive in from the high road, you will see from afar the papaya and coconut trees that rise above everything else. Very different from when Celestin and his wife Joselene decided to start the farm here. Back then there was nothing. It was all wilderness, all ‘mondi’. The ground was overgrown with weeds, wild shrubs, and trees. The abandoned and remote terrain was used to dump trash and to strip stolen cars.
In recent years, the two have used their magic to transform the mondi into a fertile hòfi. Every seed has been put in the ground by them, every stone of the house laid by themselves, and all the installations Celestin has built single-handedly. The two live with their two children in a house on the property. Right next to it is the fenced off yard with 52 goats and fifteen sheep. The animals get the leftover fruit and vegetables from the fields and contribute to the production of the farm with goat’s milk, lamb, and mutton. Two large water cisterns behind the shed are filled to the brim.
A few steps further you walk straight onto the plantation. Everywhere you hear the creaking and squeaking of the windmills that pump the water up from the wells. Behind the papaya-, coconut- and banana trees are the vast fields with vegetables and herbs. Here, on the open field in the bright sun and strong winds, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potato, ochre, eggplant, yucca, melon, and pumpkin are grown. Under a shadow mesh as protection against the bright sun, Celestin grows coriander, parsley, and other herbs. What was once an impassable mondi has thus grown into a natural pharmacy full of healthy and medicinal crops and herbs.
Help each other and share what you can
Ploughing, sowing, harvesting. On land, the circle of life plays out in miniature every day. How much, how often and when to plant and harvest differs per crop. Celestin has deliberately opted for a varied and extensive range of fruit and vegetables. Every day his family has at least food to eat, and it allows him to be flexible towards his customers such as supermarkets and restaurants. Every crop has its own life cycle. Bananas, yucca and papaya are ready to harvest after six or seven months, but snow peas and cucumbers are ready after only six or seven days. Coriander can be harvested from the land after two weeks, warmoes after six weeks.
The crops rotate. The field is divided into patches of soil with lower lying trenches. Here the seeds or seedlings are planted. Then it is a matter of weeding, watering and especially keeping an eye on it. Like he takes care of his own children, with the same dedication and love, Celestin takes care of his crops. Every now and then they get some extra vitamins. If necessary, they are treated with biological poison, for example against ‘pispis’, or aphids.
In Haiti the same crops grow in similar harsh conditions under scorching sun and in strong wind. Just like in Curaçao, the availability of water is one of the biggest concerns. But there, farmers can at least fall back on the water from the rivers for parts of the year. Here Celestin has found other solutions to ensure a continuous water supply. He has drilled wells in three corners of the plantation. The windmills on top of it draw the water up from the ground. This is then pumped to the crops through pipes and hoses.
The entire system of wells, windmills and pipes was assembled by Celestin himself. Especially the leveling of the structure of the windmill requires a lot of skill. He learned from books and by asking companies for advice through e-mail on how it all worked. That knowledge still comes in handy when something is broken. Celestin also does the maintenance and repairs of his irrigation system himself.
In addition to the well water, the plants receive water from the two containers with rainwater that are connected to the irrigation system. In the fields it is still manual labor. Moving pipes and hoses, opening and closing taps. That’s something which is on every day’s schedule. For Celestin it feels like a competition. If one part of the plantation has had enough water, another part is thirsty again.
Amongst the three of them and with assistance from two or three extra hands, Celestin, his wife, and son manage to keep the plantation in good order. All the energy and dedication of the family is directed towards the cultivation of the terrain. If possible, they will opt for innovation. Different seeds, more effective herbicides, or solutions to protect the crops from the bright sun, for example with shadow mesh, all are considered.
If he had the money, Luberisse would invest in a computerized drip system for irrigation to be controlled automatically in phases. Production would go through the roof immediately. The same would count if they had a tractor of their own and other machinery. Then he would hold everything in his own hands and be able to follow his own schedule. This way the company would take a big step forward.
It would be wonderful. But for now, they make do with what they have. Making money never comes first to Luberisse and Joselene. They get their satisfaction from the harvest of healthy fruit and vegetables. Even if the yield is a bit disappointing, there is always enough to eat, fresh from the land.
Food comes first