Perhaps the most often used phrase spoken to visitors to the city of Port au Prince is “Welcome to Haiti,” delivered with a shrug of the shoulders and a resigned look.
Your driver is five hours late because of a flat tire. (A daily occurrence on the rubble strewn roads?) A truck comes barreling down the street on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. Plastic bottles littering the streets accumulating in small mountains. The lack of trees and green spaces in Port au Prince, the few that exist behind barbed wire. The sheer volume of barely functional cars, diesel trucks spewing fumes, and colorful, decaying tap-taps packed with people.
Ask about any of this and the answer is always the same: “Welcome to Haiti.” Welcome to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and until the recent earthquake, probably the least visible.
Now, Haiti has acquired another distinction it doesn’t need: the place that offers a concrete vision of the world after catastrophe, the kind that will become more common with climate change.
Diesel, raw sewage, rotting garbage.
“It’s not like we have a garbage company that comes every Tuesday and Thursday to pick up the trash,” says Lesli Petit-Phar, an English professor turned ‘fixer’- the guy who helps foreign journalists and aid workers survive the chaotic streets of Haiti.
At the end of a day moving through Port au Prince, your hair will feel like straw, every part of your body will be covered in sweat, dirt and dust and you will spend the night coughing up and sneezing out what you hope is dirt but are pretty sure is something more sinister.
Everywhere you turn in Port au Prince, there are children — undersized, with bloated bellies and the orange strands of hair that signal systemic malnutrition — and many of them redefine what it means to be an orphan. Across the street from Patience Home for Disadvantaged Children, there are 10 babies languishing in a hot, dark, dirty tent. They have mothers, who are nearly children themselves. They want the orphanage to take in their children because they can’t care for them, but the orphanage doesn’t have enough money or beds. These are the orphans of systemic poverty.
Hope in the Reefs
The ocean that surrounds Haiti provides a glimmer of hope. Greg Hodgson of California-based Reef Check Foundation says that it is one answer to addressing the Haitian food crisis, even though on a recent assessment trip to Haiti, he was told not to bother diving, the reefs were all dead. He went down anyway.
He was surprised to discover that as much as 80% of the coral reefs off the coast in Jacmel are in tact. Those reefs could become the breeding ground for fish and seafood that can help feed the Haitian population, says Hodgson, but with some large caveats.
“Looking 50 years to 100 years ahead, some scientists predict that all coral reefs will be destroyed. What’s happening right now, today, is that over fishing is destabilizing reefs in most of the Caribbean,” explains Hodgson.
“Another big issue is the siltation from erosion and land run off from deforestation which exposes the soil to rain and increases the sediment that goes into the ocean. That silt gets on to the coral and can damage the reef.”
Then there is the raw sewage running out of Port au Prince directly into the ocean. All of these factors are putting at great risk a potential food source for the 1.9 million people identified by the World Food Programme as food insecure in Haiti even before the earthquake.
Where Did All the Trees Go?
For decades, Haitians have been chopping down trees for fuel. Petit-Phar says that most Haitians never understood why the trees mattered. Energy needs were immediate and the trees were available to provide it. Charcoal from felled trees fueled home kitchens, commercial laundries, sugar refineries and rum distilleries. Some estimate that as much as 98% of Haiti’s tree cover is gone as a result.
According to a U.S. Department of the Army sponsored Country Study on Haiti, "the main challenge to agriculture was not economic, but ecological. Extreme deforestation, soil erosion, droughts, flooding, and the ravages of other natural disasters had all led to a critical environmental situation.”
Yet even as the environment degraded, it was called upon to support ever more people per square kilometer of arable land. Haiti’s land density has become greater than that in India, jumping from 296 in 1965 to 408 by the mid-1980s. That’s why Haiti must import 48 percent of its food. While Haitian starvation has been exacerbated by natural disasters, it’s the unnatural disaster of deforestation for fuel that began the cascade.
What Now? What Next?
Most agree that the real tragedy of Haiti will be if Port au Prince is rebuilt to what it was before the earthquake. Just about every aid organization agrees that in the midst of chaos, there is great opportunity for rebuilding “sustainably.” But the challenge is daunting.
Right now, with hurricane season starting, more than 600,000 people in Haiti are currently on the waiting list to get shelter, according to Eric Klein of the relief organization CAN-DO. They are one of several organizations that want to bring sustainable housing and renewable energy to Haiti.
Dr. Laura Stachel of WE CARE Solar is traveling around the country with solar suitcases that can be used to provide light to hospitals and clinics. Solar stoves, water reclamation and purification systems, recycling of the rubble to rebuild the city, there is no lack of technology and ideas to bring sustainability to Haiti.
Yet the billions of dollars in relief funds must first go to relieve the wrenching human emergency, even though no one is quite sure what the short term plan for securing continued food, water and medical care is, let alone a long term plan for rebuilding, reforestation, reef protection and sustainable agriculture.
It’s a stark reminder of the vulnerability of those at the bottom of the global economic pecking order.
Welcome to Haiti.
(photos: Leslie Berliant)