Impressions of Haiti

(from a visit in May, 2010)

Four months after the earthquake, the streets of Port Au Prince are filled with people selling things, repairing things, walking somewhere, doing something. There is a semblance of normalcy in the city, a mixture of passion for life, purpose and perhaps resignation. But signs of the earthquake remain obvious.

Driving through Port Au Prince at night, the broken houses and rubble and garbage in the streets appear ghost like and ethereal. The people stay vibrant and real, colorful in the headlights, enjoying the respite from the hot sun.

We stop at a checkpoint in the middle of the street – there has been an increase in kidnappings and NGO employees are under curfew – some must be in their homes or hotels by 6 PM. The victims are always released unharmed – kidnappings in Haiti have their own rules and politics. Injustice, economic and otherwise, often drives such actions.

What strikes me more than anything else about Port Au Prince and surrounding areas is the calm purpose one finds in every neighborhood, every street, to bring order back into the chaos that prevailed after the earthquake.

Tent cities are ubiquitous – in parks, in empty lots, on the rubble of destroyed buildings, or in the streets themselves, blocking already narrow lanes, you cannot drive for five minutes without seeing one. Most people now have real tents, or at least rain proof tarps, but some are still using sheets. Port Au Prince is sheltered by mountains and a bay which mitigates the winds but a major effort was in progress to relocate tens of thousands of people whose tents were likely to be washed away or flooded out in major rainstorm, as the rainy season progresses. Only 100 tent cities are on the list. We visited one city of 2500 in a flood plain that isn’t on the list – there are no plans to move it.

Cite Soleil camp

Cite Soleil camp

A new addition to Port Au Prince is the rubble from thousands of houses which spills onto sidewalks and streets and empty lots as they are demolished to make room for new construction. One of the major agencies is supposed to arrange to pick it up, but there seems to be a never ending supply of it – virtual mountains of urbanite, which landslide in the heavy daily rains and block the roads. The people are cleaning up and rebuilding their city with hand tools and wheelbarrows, piece by piece.

Those that can afford it are building smarter – they have all seen which houses stayed standing in the earthquake and which ones didn’t (the old style gingerbread houses are almost all still standing). Those who can’t afford better grades of concrete and construction materials are rebuilding the same way they did it before, or building shacks made out of scraps or if they’re really lucky, they scored a shipping container.
When assessing needs and resources, the waste stream becomes an obvious abundance that could remedy a number of scarcities. Garbage is everywhere – there are literally mountains of plastic bottles, sawdust, cardboard and other garbage in every neighborhood. Per one person we spoke with, there is only one small recycling facility in Port Au Prince.

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As we landed in Port Au Prince, we flew over thousands of shipping containers that could be used for earthquake and hurricane resistant housing sitting at docks next to several large tent cities.

Driving through the city, we see people carrying logs only 2” in diameter, to rebuild houses (per my Haitian friend, the trees do not get any bigger before being chopped down). I saw hundreds of cookstoves lined up on sidewalks, burning biochar created from the remnants of the jungle, the lifeblood of the land burned to cook imported rice in a country that used to grow enough rice to be a significant exporter, before economic manipulation destroyed the rice industry. Farmers became loggers, and now the mountains are barren and the rivers full of silt, what is left of rich jungle soils.

“What can the people do?” one Haitian woman said to me. “They need shelter! They need to cook their food!”

Millions of cookstoves burn trees of Haiti

Millions of cookstoves burn trees of Haiti

The Director for the Ministry of the Environment in Jacmel, introduced to permaculture by one of our PDC graduates, Paule Jacque, discourages solutions that use wood at all, because of the concern that people will continue to cut trees. Thus sawdust and rocket stoves are perceived as not the best solutions possible though certainly an improvement over what is used now. We plan to experiment with sawdust stoves using rice husks and other material. One solution I found was the high efficiency Lucia stove created by World Stoves and produced in a local Haitian factory. Using a vortex technology, it burns almost anything efficiently (garbage, fruit rinds, rice husks, etc) and produces biochar, which can be used in a program to remediate depleted soils. Another solution being experimented with by some of our team are brickets made of waste paper and other flammables from the waste stream. While not an ideal or long term solution, it can be a transitional program. With few recycling facilities in Port Au Prince, it is better than putting it in a landfill. And it saves trees.

We are driving down a steep road coming from one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Port Au Prince. The road headed downward is empty except for us, but a long string of newer model jeeps and SUVs is parading up the hill headed for the estate compounds in the hills. “Those are the NGO’s” my friend informed me. “Some Haitians won’t rent to other Haitians because they get more money from the rescue agencies – in some cases $10,000 US per month. They pay US and European rates.” Her Haitian friend, in the car with us, was having trouble finding a place to rent, though she had money. Even Haitians that can afford to pay rent can’t find housing sometimes because they are displaced by foreign employees of foreign NGOs.

The barriers to getting things done in Port Au Prince can be complex and formidable. I’ve only been here a few days, but already I’ve been stranded by flooding, which caused me to miss a key meeting, stranded by a fuel shortage (the fuel was available offshore, but not allowed into PaP for some reason – political, per some Haitian friends), prevented from reaching another meeting by a strike, dehydrated, and bitten by plenty mosquitos.

But yet I am struck by a sense of order. In the camps, Comites (committees) have been elected to coordinate needs and resources, flood mitigation, medical care and other logistics. Neighborhoods spontaneously organized themselves shortly after the quake and neighbors took care of each other and their area. Children in impeccably neat school uniforms are seen in most neighborhoods, and I marvel at how impeccably clean everyone is, considering so many are living in camps with shortages of showers, the dust from the rubble can be intense, and the rains turn it into sticky mud. Most of the streets were kept clear enough of rubble, tents and other debris to be passable, which was quite a feat, with the rains especially. Garbage was being collected in some areas, markets were thriving, and the sense of purpose was palpable.

“Tap tap” buses are always evident even when there is little fuel, a symbol of optimism we see in so many places in spite of the grim circumstances.

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Jobs are almost non-existent but everybody is selling something, it seems. I wonder where they get both the goods and the money.

While Haitians are only paid $3-10 per day “cash for work” as part of the rescue effort, to clean up rubble and garbage , money is trickling into the economy via high prices for foreigners (on the street, there is one price given to foreigners, another one for rich Haitians, and another for poor Haitians). I took a 15 minute taxi ride to an NGO meeting which cost $40 US, more than twice what it would have cost in NYC. When I queried the price, the driver firmly said, “This is the going rate for NGO’s”. With $10 billion in aid slated to Haiti and very little of it actually entering the local economy even now, Haitians are tapping into it where they can, via the salaries and operating budgets of relief agencies.
The media states that the World Bank and other major funders of the relief effort will be largely running the country on a de facto basis, bypassing the government and the local business community. No surprise, but disappointing – Haiti is a country as yet relatively untouched by multinational corporate chains and heavy commercial development.

There is much opportunity for permaculture in Haiti – hillsides in Port Au Prince are dotted with the Haitian version of three sisters – corn, pigeon pea and squash or melon, plus various herbs and other vegetables. We found out later this was a result of a successful urban farming program from the early 90’s. We saw many mango and neem trees as well as mangosteen, noni, soursop, moringa and other potential value-added foods. Because it is so mountainous, microclimates abound in Haiti – almost anything tropical or semi-tropical could grow here if there is soil. Haitians are already accustomed to low tech solutions and if something works, its use can spread rapidly through grassroots.

Beans with overstory of banana, breadfruit and coconut and mulch of sawdust and coconut coir

Beans with overstory of banana, breadfruit and coconut and mulch of sawdust and coconut coir

In the countryside, housing is similar to traditional quincha mejorada houses in Central America – made of sticks and earth, the houses can withstand weather and even earthquakes. If bamboo is used instead of sticks, this type of housing becomes sustainable and easy to build. With the right earth plasters, it can be made to resemble the popularly accepted concrete housing in Port Au Prince.

Earthen house

Earthen house

Broadscale reforestation and erosion control is vital – at one time Haiti was the breadbasket of the Caribbean, supplying food for many other countries. Now it imports much of its food and continues to deplete its soils by cutting trees. Many reforestation projects have failed because they did not include human systems in the design process. By incorporating economic solutions, we can ensure that forests remain, once planted. There is opportunity in disaster because systems need to be rebuilt, and can be rebuilt sustainably.
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We are in planning stages on a Haitian reforestation project that incorporates sustainable human systems (financial and social permaculture, self-sufficient food, water, shelter and energy), and are interested in networking and cooperation with other projects. One of our projects is to assist in putting together a database of permaculture resources in or connected with Haiti. For more information on the database, write to: Olivia Jeanne, oj@veya.org

There is much work to be done but many hands to do it. Perhaps what touched me most of all was the optimism I encountered. In spite of the suffering Haitians have endured, when offered channels to improve their condition, interest and enthusiasm rise to the surface.

Country street

Country street

Jacmel

Jacmel


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