Haiti is famous around the world primarily for its problems, one being advanced ecological destruction. However, as with its other problems, citizens – with international friends and the occasional help of the government – are working to turn this around and create a healthy environment.
Aldrin Calixte tells of the social, economic, and political causes of the environmental crisis and what is being done to create a different future. One of Haiti’s principal environmental advocates, Aldrin is an agronomist who specializes in natural resource management. He is also Executive Secretary of Haiti Survie [Haiti Survive], an organization which ties broad awareness-raising with citizen action. Haiti Survie believes that the struggle to defend the environment should be an active part of the life of every human being. For more information, see www.haitisurvie.org.
If we take a look at all the components that make up the environment in Haiti, it’s a pretty somber picture. If you look at the loss the trees, soil erosion with millions of tons of topsoil flowing towards the sea every year, waste, air quality, lack of water, threats to an extremely rich biodiversity of fauna… The situation is, well, catastrophic.
I want to talk about alternatives to change this. But first, let’s take a look at the political, social and economic causes, and foreign influences as well, because we can’t forget that the environment is a single, coherent unit. Something that takes place in one place has repercussions in other places. Look for example at migratory birds from areas with cold seasons. Some of these birds migrate to Haiti, so if we’re looking at protecting Haiti’s biodiversity, it will affect all the areas that these birds are coming from as well. This is just to give you an idea of the complexity and interrelation between all components of the environment, including governmental policies, in different countries.
If we look at the social and economic causes, poverty is one of the biggest forces. Most people live on $1 or less a day. People are in dire straits and they’re abandoned, so they have to use the environment any way they can. You have so many peasants struggling to use such little land, and often land that’s not really viable like on steep mountainsides. In order to ensure their subsistence, people have been forced to exploit natural resources without rest, so the land keeps degrading. A simple example is people trying to farm to survive but it’s not profitable enough, so in order to send their children to school, a lot of them are forced to make charcoal and of course that in turn means exploiting trees.
Let’s look at the political side of things. The decision-makers don’t have a political will to really give priority to the environment. There are already many laws on the books concerning environmental protection, but unfortunately, they’re not implemented.
Over time, the government granted big concessions to foreign firms that came and exploited trees from Haiti; a lot of trees were cut for export. Other foreign companies exploited our resources, leading to degradation of things like soil, and there never was and still isn’t a political will that will encourage all this to regenerate.
Yes, the environment is natural, but the catastrophic situation is all tied to the actions of man: socially, economically, politically. That’s why I believe that even though the situation is very rough, we can find solutions for it. We can develop solutions at the broad, macro-level, in things we can do together, and also at a more local, micro-level, with actions and interventions that work at a smaller scale.
At a macro-level, the government has a large role it has to play to integrate the issue of the environment within overarching development policy. If we’re talking about development today, it can’t give priority simply to economic factors in what we call capitalist development. The government has a responsibility to ensure legislation that will protect the environment. As I said, there are already many, many laws on the books that are meant to protect the environment, but they need to be adapted to the current circumstances, updated within the global development framework.
On this same level, too, we need to look at reinforcing capacity, that is, training citizens. We have to lead big campaigns of awareness-raising, because without awareness there won’t be action. Strength is derived from capacity and training. The mentality of people must be changed, and then their behavior toward the environment will change. Otherwise, everything will always remain at the level of talk, talk, talk. We have to put a lot of effort into this.
At the same time, we have to have proposals for concrete actions. As we face this climate crisis and energy crisis, for example, we need to look for alternative energy solutions which are economically, socially, and environmentally viable. We need to begin thinking about using energy sources that we have at our disposal, like wind or solar energy. We have a lot of sun here. This doesn’t mean that we’ll completely eliminate the types of energy we’re using right now, but that we take measures to diversify.
At the micro-level, I’ll give you some examples of what Haiti Survie is doing. We have a nation that’s ill, suffering from the loss of topsoil and deforestation, so we’re leading campaigns. But before we do reforestation, we have to reinforce community capacity and training. Not just with adults, but children as well, because they’ll be the decision-makers of tomorrow. We educate the children in schools about preserving biodiversity - the multitude of species which are in danger of extinction - and protecting the environment where they live.
And this affects more than just the children themselves, because they have the ability to reach adults. They can teach a lot of things. For example, adults might be handling garbage poorly, and the child could some and say, “No, Mama, Papa, that’s not how you deal with trash; you can’t just throw it anywhere. We can make revenue off it, we can transform it.”
After the education, awareness, and training programs, we move on to concrete action. In the case of deforestation, Haiti Survie begins with replanting efforts involving the community. This way we’re also developing an alternative source of income for the community so people don’t have to create and sell charcoal. Now, instead, we generate income for the people using the trees themselves. We believe that people won’t cut down trees if they’re economically productive. So we have some people here who have fruit trees. Those trees will give you fruit every year, which you can bring to the market as is, or transform it [into other products like jam] and convert into income, or eat it and improve your nutrition.
So we’ve solved the problem on three fronts: deforestation, the ensuing loss of soil, and the loss of biodiversity, because there have been a lot of species of trees which have been disappearing but that we’re reintroducing back. Reforestation programs involve preservation and conservation, regeneration of the ecosystem, and an economic element because people get a source of income.
In addition, we ensure that the replanting activity involves everyone. For example, we have these seedlings but we don’t just plant them, we involve the children to integrate their knowledge with their actions. We’re instilling a sense of connection between the people and the trees that make up their natural environment.
Another project Haiti Survie is working on is water management in dry zones. There were lots of places where the people didn’t have drinkable water. What was worse is that this was most affecting two groups that were already so vulnerable: women and children, who often had to walk two to three kilometers for one gallon of water. It was tiring, plus the children didn’t have time to go to school and the women didn’t have time to devote to other activities at home or in the community. So we said, “When the rainy season comes, let’s find a way to collect the rainwater.” We set up collection and storage systems. We gave people a way to have water for their everyday uses, bathing and cooking, but we also tied it to agriculture because the people used this water for growing their gardens.
This relates to adaptation to climate change, too, because the dry season has become much longer. If it didn’t rain, people simply weren’t able to grow gardens. Now we’re trying to help people adapt, to encourage them to still keep gardens but to water them with rainwater they store in the reservoirs that we built for them. I wouldn’t say that the problem has been solved 100%, but we have definitely improved the situation.
Haiti Survie also has some micro-interventions relating to the catastrophe that took place on January 12. We want to see sustainable development projects taking place, but if we don’t link sustainable development with urgent assistance, it’s a lost cause. That’s because Haiti is always hit by emergencies; every year we’re rocked with natural disasters of some sort: cyclones, floods, droughts, and then this earthquake that caused so much loss of life and so much destruction. So Haiti Survie put in place post-earthquake measures, with the help of Christian Aid and other partners like Friends of the Earth. On the one hand, we immediately helped 344 families in Port-au-Prince and 300 rural families with food, medical aid, preventative health care, and shelter. You know they lost so much in 35 seconds [of the earthquake].
But we also provided financial assistance so the rural people could reconstitute their economies. We helped them reinforce their agricultural well-being so they didn’t have to lose this year’s planting season in March. We also gave them help to send their kids to school, because we believe that education is a cornerstone of sound development. Our goal is to help these people be stronger so they can take part in development.
We know that each person has the right to live in a healthy environment. It’s also the responsibility of everyone to protect the environment where they live. For each of you who has the chance to read this article, what will you do about it?
Thanks to David Schmidt for assistance in translating this interview.
Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.